Asked about a line of Masked ballspeaking of “the filthy race of negroes”, the Italian chef underlines the misinterpretation of his detractors: Verdi denounces racism.
“History cannot be changed, it must be preserved in its essence, for better or for worse, so that the following generations can know it.” Interviewed by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera the Neapolitan conductor Riccardo Muti explains why he refused to modify the libretto of the Masked ball by Verdi, in the production he has just completed in Chicago.
In scene 4 of act I of the work created in 1859, a judge requests the banishment of a woman, a fortune teller accused of witchcraft. “He was called. Ulrica – dell’abbietto. Blood of ‘negri’, he says to Riccardo. That is : “Her name is Ulrica – of the filthy race of niggers”.
“History cannot be changed”
While the debate stirred across the Atlantic, the Italian conductor intends to put everyone’s ideas back in place. He thus explains to Corriere della Sera that he had a discussion with the interpreters on the maintenance of this line, while there are three African-American singers in this production, including the interpreter of the famous judge. For Muti, no doubt, “this sentence is infamous”. But we must not be mistaken about its presence in the libretto signed by Antonio Somma in 1858. “Verdi was a person of great morality, as well as a great musician, emphasizes Muti. He wanted to ridicule the character’s racism, cruelty and ignorance.” After presenting his point of view, the chef reportedly asked South African tenor Lunga Eric Hallam if he had “difficulty pronouncing these words”. To which he would have replied: “after your explanation, no”. End of debate.
The conductor took advantage of the interview to express his annoyance at the adaptations practiced in certain classic works which are deemed not to conform to current tastes. “I am completely against these make-ups practiced in theaters and these changes in the librettos, he explains. History cannot be changed, it must be preserved in its essence, for better or for worse, so that the following generations can know it.
In the United States, it is now customary to modify the libretto of lyrical works, certain passages of which are judged – rightly or wrongly – to be racist. Moreover, this is not the first time that the incriminated line of the Masked Ball ready for debate. Most opera houses have also definitively abandoned certain practices, such as the make-up of the heroes ofotello or of Aida, for example, when their interpreters are not black. It should also be remembered that this intermediary, very fashionable until the 1970s, had been evacuated by most modern directors, long before it was assimilated to “black face”.
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Riccardo Muti explains why the opera must assume its history, even when it seems racist
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