Francesco Maria Piave
by Paul Dorgan
Francesco Maria Piave, born in the Murano area of Venice in 1810, was the eldest son of a relatively well-off family involved in the manufacture of glass. When the business failed, Francesco, destined for the priesthood, had to leave the seminary and fend for himself. He wrote, and got a position as a proof-reader in a publishing house. After a few years of this he moved to Rome and it may have been there that he wrote his first libretto, Don Marzio, for a composer named Samuel Levi! The opera was never performed. He returned to Venice and his first job at the Teatro la Fenice (Venice's principal opera house) was to complete Il duca d'Alba which Giovanni Peruzzini was unable to finish due to illness. Giovanni Pacini was the composer and the opera was first given in 1842, which was when the Fenice hired Piave as the resident "poet" (i.e. provider of librettos to composers commissioned to write for the theatre); he was also the "Stage Manager" - "Director" in today's parlance. and as what we would now consider their "stage director." The Fenice's operatic reputation was second only to La Scala, so when Verdi received a letter of interest for an opera to be produced there, he was most anxious to accept the contract.
For his La Scala operas Merelli, the impressario, had given Verdi pre-written librettos. With the offer from Venice he was, for the first time, faced with the dilemma of finding an appropriate subject, always a complicated procedure with Verdi, and not made any easier by the censors. With two subjects already forbidden and others being bandied about, he received a letter from Piave, suggesting an adaptation of Victor Hugo's play Cromwell. Verdi checked into this unknown writer and was assured by Mocenigo, the Fenice's director, that he had good theatrical chops and knew the musical forms. Verdi agreed to use him. It turned out that his "theatrical chops" were not to Verdi's high standards, even at this relatively early stage of his career. But Piave proved malleable, the very quality Verdi sought in a librettist. And so, over the next twenty years, Piave wrote a total of ten librettos for Verdi, including Ernani, Rigoletto, La Traviata, and La forza del destino. Verdi's letters to Piave are filled with paragraphs about how to structure a scene in an opera; how to balance the dramatic needs with the musical ones; about the need for what he would later call parole scenica - "theatrical words" that would leap from stage to auditorium and grab the listener. Above all he was to be brief: in an opera the music carries far more emotional weight than does the text.
Often, when working on a Piave libretto, Verdi would summon the writer to Sant'Agata, where he could more easily bully him into supplying the needed situation or text. Despite the bullying, Piave became close friends with the composer as well as with Giuseppina Strepponi, who sometimes referred to him as Il grazioso (the Graceful One) on account of some of his archaically-worded verses.
In 1860, thanks, in large part, to Verdi's influence, Piave became the resident poet and "Stage Manager" at La Scala, Milan. Seven years later, on his way to the theatre, he suffered a stroke. Both Verdis were devastated by the news. Giuseppina wisely forbade her husband to visit their friend: Piave, paralyzed and unable to communicate, would be horribly distraught. Verdi immediately sent money to his friend's wife, and then badgered Ricordi to publish an album of piano pieces, the proceeds of which would go to the invalid. He died in 1869.
It's easy to think of Piave as a one-composer librettist; but in fact he wrote almost forty librettos for a variety of composers. Scholars will recognize the names Saverio Mercadante and Giovanni Pacini. But Antonio Buzzolla, or Carlo Boniforti, or the Ricci brothers, Federico and Luigi? The Irish composer, Michael William Balfe, might ring a bell or two as the composer of The bohemian girl. There's no doubt that the librettos he wrote for Verdi are his best, because Verdi demanded better, while lesser composers simply accepted whatever the librettist sent. But how sad that, for all his forty librettos, we know him today (if we know him at all) only as the author of a few Verdi operas. But such is the fate of the libretto-writer!