Giuseppe Verdi's career spans three quarters of the nineteenth century. He was born in 1813 at Le Roncole, near Busseto, the son of a tavern-keeper, and distinguished himself locally in music. The encouragement and patronage of his future father-in-law Antonio Barezzi, a merchant in Busseto, allowed him further study in Milan, before returning to Busseto as maestro di musica. His first venture into opera, a reasonably successful one, was in 1839 with Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio. This was followed, however, by the failure of Un giorno di regno, written at a period when the composer suffered the death of his wife, Barezzi's daughter, and their two children. His early reputation was finally established by the opera Nabucco, staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1842.
Verdi's subsequent career in Italy brought him unrivalled fame, augmented by his reputation as a patriot and fervent supporter of Italian national unity. His name itself was treated as an acronym for the proposed monarch of a united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele, re d'ltalia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy), and much of his work was susceptible to patriotic interpretation. His long association with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi led to their marriage in 1859, the year of Un ballo in maschera. He completed his last opera, Falstaff, in 1893, four years before her death, but felt himself unequal to further Shakespearean operas then proposed. He died while staying in Milan early in 1901, his death the subject of national mourning throughout Italy.
Ernani, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave derived from Victor Hugo's play Hernani, is set in Spain in 1519. The opera was first staged at La Fenice in Venice in 1844. The bandit Ernani loves Elvira, niece and betrothed of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, from whom she hopes Ernani will rescue her. The king, Don Carlo, declares his love for Elvira, and he and Ernani quarrel in Elvira's chamber, to be discovered there by Silva, who demands vengeance, until he discovers the identity of Don Carlo. The king pretends that Ernani is one of his followers, although the latter is anxious to take revenge for the death of his father at the hands of Don Carlo. In a story of some complication in which Spanish honour has a great part to play, Ernani and Elvira are eventually united, but Ernani is then forced to kill himself, fulfilling an earlier pledge he had made to Silva, who survives to enjoy his final triumph. The signal that tells Ernani he must die, as Silva had earlier specified, is a horn-call, and this is heard at the start of the brief slow Prelude to the opera, used here to frame an extended melody.
The title Il finto Stanislao (The Pretended Stanislaus) was that of a libretto offered to Verdi by Bartolomeo Merelli, after the success of Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio at La Scala. The libretto by Felice Romani had been used twenty years before at La Scala, Milan, and was now renamed Un giorno di regno (King for a Day) for a staging of the new setting by Verdi in 1840. The opera is set in the castle of Baron Kelbar, near Brest, in the year 1733. Stanislaus, who makes no appearance, was the historical pretender to the throne of Poland, and while he was on his way there in secret it was necessary for another to assume his place in France, so that the suspicions of his enemies should not be aroused. The Cavaliere Belfiore impersonates Stanislaus, which leads to misunderstandings with the girl to whom he has promised marriage, the Marchesa del Poggio. All eventually ends happily for the lovers, as it must in a story of this kind. It is preceded by a lively Sinfonia that makes use of themes from the opera, including that of the final celebratory chorus.
Don Carlo, sometimes known by its French title Don Carlos, is based on the play of the latter name by Schiller. A French libretto was started by Joseph Méry and completed by Camille du Locle, subsequently to be translated into Italian by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini. The earlier five-act version of the opera was in French and was performed at the Paris Opéra in 1867 on the occasion of the Paris Exposition of that year. A four-act Italian version was staged first in Milan in 1884 and a five-act Italian version three years later. The play concerns the love of Don Carlo, son of Philip II of Spain, for Elisabeth de Valois, to whom he was betrothed, but who, for reasons of state, has been married to his father. The continuing love of Don Carlo for the woman who is now his step-mother and his interest in the pursuit of a more tolerant Spanish policy in the Netherlands, coupled with the jealous love of Princess Eboli and the intervention and self-sacrifice of his friend Rodrigo, cause difficulties that it takes the ghost of the old Emperor Charles V to solve in an improbable final scene. The original ballet music that opened Act III in the French version of the opera was later replaced by an orchestral prelude based on music from the first act, where Don Carlo sees Elisabeth for the first time, as he visits the French court incognito.
The La Scala librettist Temistocle Solera had recourse to Schiller for the text of Giovanna d'Arco, an Italian derivative of Die Jungfrau von Orleans. The opera was first staged in Milan in 1845. Its plot, true neither to history nor to Schiller, deals with the brief career of Joan of Arc in leading the French against the English armies, her ambivalent rejection of earthly love and final death in battle. The Sinfonia that introduces the first act moves forward to a dramatic climax before a central Andante pastorale, suggesting the heroine's earlier pastoral activities, followed by a final Allegro.
Rigoletto, based on Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse with a libretto by Piave, was written for La Fenice in Venice and was first mounted there in 1851. Censors intervened, as work on the opera was in progress, leading to a change of setting from the French court to sixteenth century Mantua. The court jester Rigoletto, deformed in body and in mind, abets the unscrupulous Duke in his amours, but suffers the abduction and ruin of his own daughter, seen as the fulfilment of a curse placed upon him and his master by the father of a girl the Duke has wronged. Rigoletto seeks revenge on the Duke, whose murder he plots, only to have his own daughter killed in place of her seducer. The opening Prelude presents the father's curse, the malediction that will bring disaster to another father, Rigoletto himself.
Verdi's first great success came in 1842 with the production at La Scala of his opera Nabucco, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera and the part of Abigaille, supposed elder daughter of the Babylonian Emperor of the title, Nebuchadnezzar, sung by the composer's later mistress and wife Giuseppina Strepponi. The Italian libretto was later revealed as based on a French original. It deals with the love of the captive Fenena, daughter of Nabucco, and the Israelite soldier Ismaele, in Jerusalem, and the jealous rivalry of Abigaille. The action continues in Babylon, with the Jews now in captivity, but to be set free by Fenena, a Jewish convert. Matters go from bad to worse with blasphemous claims from Nabucco and his madness, allowing Abigaille to resume power. Nabucco's final