Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Jim Pinkerton, 'Verdi Man' & opera buff

WHEN in the Autumn of 2001 the distinguished old Lancashire anarchist and former international secretary of the Syndicalist Workers' Federation, Jim Pinketon, had just suffered what was to be his first stroke and was speechless in bed in Ashton-under-Lyne General Hospital, Harold Sculthorpe produced a pair of headphones and played him some Puccini, Derek Pattison, another life-long friend said:  'Jim was more of a Verdi man, Harold!'.   This year is the bicentennary of both Verdi and Wagner and it caused a little consternation when last December the Teatro alla Scala in Milan opened its season with 'Lohengrin' in observation of Wagner's bicentennial rather than with an opera by Verdi, who was born in Roncole, Italy, in the Duchy of Palma, on either the 9th or 10th, October 1813 (the records are unclear). 

Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, on May 22nd, 1813 (no doubt the German records are clearer).  It seems they never met and had little nice to say about each other.  Yet in later life, in 1899, Verdi told a German newspaper that Wagner was 'one of the greatest geniuses' who left treasures of 'immortal worth', admitting that as an Italian, he could not claim to 'understand everything' in Wagner, but he declared before 'Trista und Isolde... I stand in wonder and terror.'  The scholar Richard Taruskin has suggested that though some of Verdi's praise may have been genuine there is 'sufficient evidence of leg pulling' in the old man's answer to the fawning German interviewer.  Anthony Tommasini, the journalist, writes:  'For the most part Wagner and Verdi existed as titans in their separate realms.' 

The Puccini music made Jim Pinkerton jerk briefly in his hospital bed when the head-phones went on his ears possibly showing some recognition, but he was never to converse again with any of us and died on March 9th, 2002 at the age of 79-years.  He was never again to listen to his 78rpm records of Caruso, Nelly Melba, Alfredo Kraus and a Zazuela from Spain or drink his fine Burgundy.

Since its excursion last year into Wagner the Teatro alla Scala has redressedv the balance in the months since with new productions of four Verdi operas, the latest being 'Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacto''Oberto' was Verdi's first opera ever.  Tommasini writes:  'By midcentury Verdi had become the Italian opera composer best known and most performed in Europe' as 'commissions even came to him from St. Petersburg ('La Forza del Destino') and Cairo ('Aida').'  For Tommasini:  'He was a colossus who expanded on and experimented with the Italian tradition but never really moved beyond it.'

What did this mean for Verdi? 

Anthony Tommasini writes:
'Verdi was born to an Italian opera tradition that embraced tried-and-true procedures regarding recitative and aria, scene structure and the like.'  But, 'In letters he complained endlessly about the tyranny of the tradition... the ridiculous expectations of opera audiences for set-piece arias and ensembles could infuriate him as much as the absurdities of the Italian censors, who vetoed story lines and settings that were deemed incendiary.'

Stravinsky wrote in his book 'Poetics of Music' defending the oom-pah-pah aria in the style of Verdi:
'I know I am going to counter the general opinion that sees Verdi's best work in the deterioration of the genius that gave us "Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore," "Aida" and "La Traviata," ' but, 'I maintain that there is more substance and true invention in the aria "La donna è mobile" (The woman is fickle), for example, in which the elite saw nothing but deplorable facility, than in the rhetoric and vociferations of the "Ring," (Wagner) ' 

Jim Pinkerton, who retired as a copy-taker on the Sunday People in the 1980s, was a northern, working-class, anarchist intellectual who loved Verdi and took a dim view of the English anarchist movement.  Culturally he would have preferred to belong to the Italian middle-class as that would have given him greater access to the music he so passionately desired.  But politically he adored the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT, particularly the Catalans, as compared to them, he observed: "we English are like shrivelled up prunes".  When one considers the the British left today, particularly the half-baked anarchist movement of this island one can't help but think that he was right in this insight.

No comments: