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'Verdi Choruses' showcases the impressive variety of a master's choral music

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review of a new album devoted to Verdi opera choruses. Lloyd reminds us that there's more to opera than just the typical aria, trio or quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VEDI! LE FOSCHE NOTTURNE SPOGLIE")

LA SCALA CHORUS: (Singing in Italian).

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: That was a clip of one of the most popular tunes Verdi ever wrote. It's not an aria, a trio or a quartet but a chorus, the "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's opera "Il Trovatore," "The Troubadour." Music lovers familiar with Verdi's "Requiem" know that it includes some of the most magnificent and terrifying choral music ever written. But Verdi's operas also have some amazing passages for the chorus, not music for the central characters but for groups who are either trying to affect the action, like the witches in Verdi's version of "Macbeth," or the crowds who are responding to previous action, like the Egyptians in "Aida" celebrating their victory over the Ethiopians or the dispossessed Hebrews in Verdi's "Nabucco," "Nebuchadnezzar," longing for their distant homeland.

Now the brilliant opera conductor Riccardo Chailly, music director of La Scala in Milan, has put together an exciting new album of choruses from Verdi's operas, his best-known as well as his most obscure. When "Nabucco" was first performed in 1842, "Va, Pensiero," the chorus of enslaved Hebrews, immediately became an anthem for the unification of Italy. Audiences insisted on encores. They still do. Chailly's recording with the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra is the most affecting version I've ever heard. It begins so quietly, as if the thoughts of the enslaved Hebrews were lifting into the air, as the libretto says, on wings of gold. The climax is a full-hearted lament for my country, so beautiful and so lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VA, PENSIERO (PT. 2) (ED. ROGER PARKER)")

LA SCALA CHORUS: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: Verdi's music for "Il Trovatore" is so tuneful we tend to forget about the words. But the libretto by Salvadore Cammarano is actually very poetic. In the "Anvil Chorus," the Spanish Roma workers awake to see the sun melting away the dark clouds of night. They pound their anvils and sing about the pleasures of wine and women brightening their day. After the boisterous opening, it's almost a shock to hear Chailly diminishing the volume of the singing to a whispered wonderment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANVIL CHORUS")

LA SCALA CHORUS: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: Chailly helps us rediscover the impressive variety of Verdi's choral music - from the comic to the extremely solemn - as well as Verdi's imaginative use of the orchestra. In this chorus of witches from "Macbeth," a much larger cohort than Shakespeare's cackling threesome, the orchestra does almost more than the voices to convey their sinister intent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MACBETH, ACT I: CHE FACESTE? DITE SU!")

LA SCALA CHORUS: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: Maybe the most complex among these choruses is the large-scale scene from "Don Carlo," in which the festivities surrounding the coronation of King Philip is interrupted and subverted by the grim voices of the Inquisition, dooming the so-called heretics to be burned at the stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON CARLO - ACT III - SPUNTATO ECCO IL DI D'ESULTANZA")

LA SCALA CHORUS: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: Verdi imagined each of his operas painted with a different tincture, and he embodied their distinct coloration, at least as vividly for his choruses as for his characters. Hearing this great range of Verdi choruses on a single album, all performed with such power and subtlety, is truly a revelation.

MOSLEY: Lloyd Schwartz is poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. His latest book is "Who's On First? New And Selected Poems." He reviewed the album "Verdi Choruses," conducted by Riccardo Chailly on the Decca label. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new comedy "Bottoms." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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