by Paul Dorgan
Until it was unified under the monarchy of King Vittore Emmaneule in 1861, Italy was a conglomeration of kingdoms, duchies and states ruled, directly or indirectly, by foreign powers, mostly France and Austria. Rome was the capital of the Papal State, ruled by the Pope. Some of these political entities were more liberal than others, but all of them controlled what could be read in newspapers and what could be seen and heard in the theatre. These days we might think such control is a huge infringement on an individual's freedom. But every oppressive government, whether it's Soviet Russia or China or Ireland (until the 1980s) employs censorship. Until 1968 the script of every theatrical production in the UK - be it play, revue, musical or opera - had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain who gave his approval, or didn't.
In nineteenth-century Italy the theatre, especially opera, was the principal source of entertainment, and the evening was as much a social occasion as an artistic one. Thus the authorities eyed the theatre with suspicion, always on the look-out for any hint of unhappy "natives" conducting secret meetings during performances, or using performances to stage some kind of political protest. One way to lower the risk of protest was to keep tight control over the content of the opera. Censors in the Un-unified Italy named three principal areas of possible offence: political, religious and moral. Censorship Central distributed the material to each sub-office which conducted its own examination and reported its objections and proposed changes back to CC. At one point in Rome, forty-one copies of a libretto had to be submitted! The Roman censor also demanded to see the set designs and the costumes: Heaven forfend that the combination of colors might suggest the Italian flag!!!
Since we're dealing primarily with Rigoletto this essay will discuss censorship as it affected its composer, Giuseppe Verdi. And it affected him tremendously! He railed against the system, challenged it whenever he could, winning small, or slightly bigger victories until finally, with the unification of Italy, censorship was abolished.
For his first operas at La Scala the impressario, Merelli, gave Verdi librettos which must have been pre-approved; besides, a young composer trying to establish himself would have been in no position to question these librettos, other than, perhaps, to change a word or two. But after his great triumphs there: Nabucco in 1842, and I Lombardi alla prima crociata in 1843, La Fenice in Venice came a-knocking. Verdi may not have known exactly what he wanted from a libretto but he certainly knew what he didn't want. For him the first step was a suitable subject. Which was also the first step in the Censorship Dance. Two subjects were rejected out of hand. Caterina Howard, based on a play by the elder Dumas, was deemed too bloody (though Italians might have had problems pronouncing the heroine's last name!); I due Foscari, one of Lord Byron's plays, set in Venice, might give offence to the still-powerful descendants of the villains of the piece. What was approved was an adaptation of a novel by Walter Scott, a fertile source for operas then: Donizetti's Lucia; Rossini's La donna del lago; Bellini's I Puritani; even, a little later, Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth; and Arthur Sullivan's only "grand" opera, Ivanhoe. Verdi was unenthused about the subject and even more unenthused with the libretto provided by the theatre's novice librettist Francesco Maria Piave.
Count Nanni Mocenigo, the impressario at La Fenice, mentioned Hernani by Victor Hugo. Now the composer was wildly enthused, while Piave was not. He pointed out that some dozen years earlier Bellini's plan to turn the play into an opera for Venice was quashed by the authorities, and so he refused to write the libretto until he had a guarantee that it would be approved by the political censor. A subject "...based on a malicious plan threatening to weaken or destroy veneration for Religion or for the Throne and which awaken[s] in people's minds emotions hostile to either of these..." would not be approved. The central scene of Hugo's play is a meeting of conspirators who plot to kill the King of Spain as he is about to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. Thanks to a lot of double-talk by Mocenigo the police approved a draft of the libretto with some caveats: a king should never have to hide in a closet; Ernani needed to use more respectful words in his scene with his monarch; no swords for the conspirators and the newly-elected Emperor's clemency needed to be much more impressive. The full text was approved and the opera was a huge success at its premiere on March 9, 1844.
But political censors had no control over an audience's reaction to a seemingly innocuous text. In Nabucco, for example, the Hebrews lament their Babylonian enslavement in the chorus "Va pensiero" - a paraphrase of the biblical "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept." It's a great tune, sung mostly in unison. Italian audiences heard themselves as the oppressed slaves of Austria and took Verdi to their hearts; even today every Italian knows their "second" National anthem! They also heard themselves in Attila when Ezio, the Roman general, tells Attila he can rule the entire world as long as he, Ezio, rules Italy. When Macbeth was given in Venice the audience greeted the chorus of Scottish exiles lamenting their "oppressed country" by throwing to the stage bouquets of red and green flowers (the "Italian" colors); when that was forbidden by the police they threw bouquets of yellow and black (the Austrian colors) and watched gleefully as the singers refused to touch them! Delightful story, but it goes to show the stupidity, not to say futility, of trying to second-guess the effect of mere words.
Verdi's next battle with the political censor, again in Venice, was Rigoletto, and you can read all about that in the BACKGROUND page.
One would think that, after his epic battle with the Venetian censor over Rigoletto (in which he was the victor), Verdi might have rested on his laurels. But no. Victory could not be declared until all censorship was abolished. Verdi agreed to compose Re Lear for the 1857-58 season in Naples. But he so fretted about the casting that the new opera was postponed until the following season and would now be based on Gustave III, a French libretto by Eugène Scribe. Scribe's librettos were based on one or two historical facts, on to which he grafted the basic operatic triangle: soprano and tenor love each other with the baritone the obstacle to their happiness. It is true that King Gustave III of Sweden was shot by one of his courtiers, a member of a cabal who objected to Gustave's reforms and the assassination took place at a masked ball on the evening of March 16, 1792. Scribe also knew that a fortune-teller had warned the King that his life was in danger. The French libretto had been set by Auber; Saverio Mercadante had composed an Italian version, Il Reggente, for Turin in 1843. The impressario in Naples, when he received the scenario, warned Verdi that changes would probably be demanded; there were seven : no king; no masked ball; a pre-Christian time when witches were believed in; "reform" not a sufficient reason for an assassination plot; no guns; new location; tenor must feel guilty for loving the baritone's wife. When Verdi arrived in Naples he submitted to the censor the revised libretto, Una vendetta in domino, the action of which now took place in seventeenth-century Pomerania ("Where?", I hear you ask: " Somewhere near Ruritania"!). The day before Verdi's arrival there had been an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Napoleon III Unsurprisingly, the Chief of Police ruled that the text would have to be completely re-written. The impressario hired a hack for the re-write, and Verdi refused to have anything to do with Adelia degli Adimari. The theatre sued for breach of contract and Verdi counter-sued for damages. He sent his lawyer the "new" libretto with comments, the most interesting of which is a repetition of one of his Rigoletto complaints: he composed music specifically for certain dramatic situations, and if those situations were changed then the music would have to be changed. The case was settled out of court, but Verdi was undoubtedly the popular winner. Ricordi wanted La Scala to produce Vendetta, but Verdi had other ideas. He had found out that a play called Gustavo III was running in Rome, so he determined to bring his battle with the censors there, "almost on Naples's doorstep." The impressario there told him that changes would probably be required; why, asked Verdi, allow a play on the subject, but not an opera? With Verdi on a mission to show that Naples was behaving in a ridiculously reactionary manner to the libretto, and with friends in high places, he was prepared to descend from his artistic pedestal and accept the Roman censor's demands. Un ballo in maschera was moved from a glittering late-eighteenth-century French-influenced Swedish court to a Puritanical seventeenth-century Boston, with the King reduced to a Governor. It's possible that Verdi knew that the Boston locale could, at some future date, with relative ease be transferred back to the original Swedish setting.
Religion first reared its head when his fourth opera, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, was in rehearsal at La Scala in 1843. The Archbishop of Milan heard that the production would include an ecclesiastical procession, complete with incense and banners; that liturgical phrases had been adapted into an aria; and that there would be an on-stage baptism. He requested police intervention to prevent such scandal. Verdi refused to change a note of his score. The Chief of Police loved opera. The result? "Ave Maria" became "Salve Maria"!
Just as George Carlin riffed on the seven words that couldn't be said on television, so Italian censors, particularly the Roman ones, had their forbidden words. The Archbishop of Ferrara, for instance, reported to his political superior in 1851 that he had forbidden a performance of Luisa Miller because the words angelo (angel), inferno (hell), cielo (heaven) and Iddio (God) were used too often!
The Roman political and religious censors combined to make Il Trovatore, first performed in Rome on January 19, 1853, incomprehensible, though Salvatore Cammarano, the very old-school librettist, must bear some of the blame. The action happens against a background of civil war, but no mention of political factions could be permitted. Azucena could not sing of her mother being burned at the stake (that might recall the Spanish Inquisition!), so mother was simply condemned to death. When Leonora decides that her only recourse is to enter a convent there could be no reference to a church, a convent or nunnish vows; nor could the off-stage singing nuns be accompanied by an organ. The original audience must have assumed that, in the final scene, the heroine dies from the exhaustion of having had to sing for the past two hours, since any reference to her taking poison - obscure enough in the original - was eliminated, as suicide is forbidden by the Catholic Church. The ominous Miserere chorus in Act 4, where off-stage monks plead for mercy for the soul of he who is to be executed, was reduced to a Mac-chorus from which everything nutritious (references to Heaven and Hell) was processed out.
Piave's enthusiasm for a French play called Le Pasteur (as Stiffelius, it had enjoyed a certain success in Italy) was not reciprocated by Verdi who granted that it was "interesting", but was concerned that no matter where the action was placed "there will always have to be a Lutheran and the leader of a sect...the costumes...would always be dreary." Despite his coolness towards the subject it became the opera he agreed to compose for Trieste in 1850. The plot concerns the discovery by a husband of his wife's adultery. The husband, Stiffelio, is a Lutheran minister. In the final scene, hurt and angered by his wife's confession, he stands in the pulpit to preach, randomly opens the Bible and reads the story of the woman taken in adultery. The libretto had been passed by the censor, as, indeed, had the play-script for a theatre-company. Apparently the "Imperial and Royal Directorate of Police" attended early rehearsals of the opera and, in the words of a local newspaper report of the events, "felt the twinges of his most catholic bowels; he felt his senses reel, and phantasms Lutheran, heretical, republican and red crowded around him...and filled his devout soul with pious horror...Stiffelio could not be produced in its present form without danger to public morality and to Roman Catholic Apostolic doctrine." The libretto had to be changed. "What expurgations, what manglings, what ignominies it had to undergo!" Instead of reading from the Bible the very apposite story of the adulterous woman, Stiffelio merely preaches, in a general way, about the need to forgive one's enemies. Stiffelio could not even be referred to as a "minister". In the duet between husband and wife in Act 3, Lina, realizing that her pleas to her husband are useless, begs him to hear her confession but her "Ministro, confessatemi" had to be diluted to "Rodolfo, ascoltatemi" ("Pastor, let me confess" became "Rodolfo, hear me") . The opera was coolly received, one critic noting that any religious question was unsuitable for operatic treatment. The following year it was given in Florence as Guglielmo Wellingrode, with Stiffelio now a German prime minister!!!!! That same year Verdi wrote to Ricordi to say that if the score was going to be "castrated" by the censors it would be better to hold off further productions until he had time to rework the final scene.
With politics and religion attended to, Censorship Central looked at the morals of the libretto. "...to be banned from the stage are all those comedies which could offend morals and good manners and at which every class of person could not properly be present, especially those representing sinful love affairs, faithless husbands and wives, scandalous intrigues with young girls who marry... clandestinely...all those...in which insubordination and lack of respect in the children is seen to triumph over paternal authority."
(Two footnotes that aren't footnotes! 1) One of the reasons for the failure of Bizet's Carmen is that it was given in a theatre patronized by a middle-class-family audience: marriageable daughters met prospective husbands there. So to see on-stage a young woman, obviously amoral, destroying a relatively innocent young man was scandalous, even though she dies at the end - another scandal, because, at the Opéra Comique, violent death happened off-stage. 2) Obviously the Italian censors were unaware of Shakespeare's plays where insubordinate children often triumph over their parental units, for better or for worse.)
"Bad" characters, however attractive, must be punished for their sins. Verdi's "Scottish opera" , for instance, never had a problem with the censors: Macbeth and his Lady had to die because they murdered, among others, the legitimate king. Not that I'm suggesting the Scottish Macbeths are an "attractive" couple!
The most attractive of all "bad" character in Verdi's operas is Violetta in La Traviata. She is a high-class prostitute in contemporary Paris who is not ashamed of her life, until tenor-boy shows up and talks to her about love. Her first-act aria questions whether she can afford to allow herself to be loved by a lover. Her idyll with Alfredo is cut short by the arrival of his father who bears down on her with all the moral hypocrisy of a society that will not forgive her past, even though God, she is sure, has already forgiven her. Violetta has to die. And die she does. Beautifully.
Though La Traviata was one of the great fisacos in the history of opera, it's interesting that when it was revived a year later, in another Venetian theatre, transposed back a century, it was a success. I guess 1853 Venetians did not like to see themselves on stage!
Today we can laugh at the rules of early nineteenth-century Italian censorship and at the nit-picky way they were applied, and sympathize with Verdi, chafing under the idiosyncratic rules of individual states, thinking how silly and artistically suffocating Censorship Central was. BUT!!!! In 1930 the "Hays Code" was adopted by the American movie industry and it lasted until 1968 when it was supplanted by a rating system which is still, sort of, used today. The Code is available on-line but here are a few apposite sentences: by substituting "opera" for "picture" you could be reading guidelines issued by Censorship Central! "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." "Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail." "Adultery...must not be explicitly treated...or presented attractively."
Even today network television tape-delays awards shows (just in case one of George Carlin's forbidden words slips out) and monitors for "wardrobe malfunctions"! Newspapers will not print certain words (Carlin, again!) which editors consider "offensive", but those same editors have no qualms about publishing pictures of assassinated foreign leaders, or of assorted victims of suicide bombers. A four-letter Anglo-Saxon verb is far less obscene to me than photos of dead dictators! Censorship is still very much alive and well!