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OPERA By the year 2000, Covent Garden plans to stage all the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. Peter Conrad hails the 'soul of Italy'
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The Independent Culture
At the beginning of Bertolucci's film Novecento, a morose, sozzled jester staggers through the Italian countryside early in January 1900, announcing the bad news which inaugurated our century. "Verdi," he sobs, "e morto!" First God died, and then Verdi succumbed (arguably a greater loss). But at the end of the century which began so inauspiciously, the Royal Opera is doing its best to keep our spirits up with its annual Verdi Festivals. The plan, somewhat eroded by lack of funds and the caprices of singers, is to perform all of his operas during what remains of the decade. Although the composer may be dead, the theatre specialises in reincarnation, and Verdi's characters - Rigoletto the tragic clown and Violetta the angelic courtesan, Otello who quietens the thunder and Falstaff with his benediction of human folly - have never been more alive, or more necessary to us.

The futurist Marinetti, watching Verdi's funeral procession in Milan, remarked that the coffin contained the soul of Italy. Verdi, for all his modest camouflage as a peasant farmer, would probably have agreed. He was a genuine populist, who, when revolution broke out in 1848, said that Italy's liberation from Austria must inevitably follow, because "the people will it". His own name served as an acronym for freedom: the rallying cry "Viva Verdi!" spelt out the slogan "Viva Vittorio Emmanuele Re D'Italia!". And his choruses - the homesick lament of the Jews in Nabucco or the exiled Scots in Macbeth - became impromptu anthems for a disinherited nation.

More importantly, he was an emotional populist. Poetry has been defined as "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed". To me that sounds like the definition of a cliche; Verdi's music, however, transcribes without embarrassment what we have all felt yet lack the courage or the lung power to express. Words, by contrast, are impossibly long-winded, and never able to do more than paraphrase emotions. The current National Theatre production of The Prince's Play - the tragedy by Victor Hugo on which Verdi based Rigoletto - is a reminder of this inequality between the arts. Hugo's hero spends all night tediously editorialising about the infamies of society; Verdi, in a few bars of modulation which conduct Rigoletto from fury to tenderness as he greets his daughter, sums up a conflict of feelings which language can only talk its way around.

His music surpasses words, even when the words are Shakespeare's. The characters of Othello are shamed by their weaknesses and by the paltriness of their motives. Verdi takes a plot about cuckoldry and seamy bed sheets and makes it sublime: his Otello, who whirls in from the storm at sea, hovers between the nihilistic gulf guarded by Iago and the heaven to which Desdemona addresses her unheeded prayer. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a weary suburban sitcom. Verdi's Falstaff transforms it into a wise and genial reconciliation with the world. The final fugue, composed when Verdi was 80, describes life itself as a giddy practical joke. Morbidity and despair are for young men; Verdi - in extreme old age - takes stock of existence, and rejoices.

Political liberation was one of Verdi's motives, but so was the more personal desire which pyrotechnically erupts in Violetta's aria "Sempre libera" from La traviata, or provokes the soprano's "Libera me" in the Requiem - the demand we all make for the right to be happy, or to be temporarily freed from our foreknowledge of death. This, as his operas explain, is why people feel the need to sing. The voice wells up inside us, a fountain of vitality which overflows in Violetta's coloratura. Most of the time we repress it, and soon enough it parches. Violetta is reduced to whispered speech by the last scene; the Requiem ends with the soprano fearfully muttering. But when the voice is released from its tight-lipped prison, what we hear is a celebration of life itself.

Verdi understood that rhythm is a vital sign, and his characters have a biological vigour which they impart to us all. "Music," he said, "needs youthfulness of the senses, impetuousness of the blood, fullness of life." The anvil chorus in Il trovatore rousingly and noisily endorses that sentiment. The Duke sings "La donna e mobile" in Rigoletto with the same self-congratulating jauntiness, like an adolescent lugging a ghetto-blaster through the streets to broadcast the news of his existence to the world. More disturbingly, when he taunts Rigoletto with a repeat after his supposed death, the aria becomes a synonym for the ego's insensitivity, obscenely trumpeting its power.

Verdi's music outlived the ardent juvenility of the Duke, and it accompanies us through the later stages of life. Like Titian and Rembrandt, he is one of the few artists whose creativity survived into old age: his first opera was performed in 1839, and the last, Falstaff, in 1893. Victor Gollancz once said that he loved Verdi's music because of "the sun in it" - a legitimate and beautiful tribute, but that solar delight gradually dimmed. In Verdi's first version of La forza del destino, the hero hurls himself from a cliff, cursing the God who has persecuted him. Philip II in Don Carlos keeps a grieving vigil after midnight in a sepulchral chamber where the candles gutter; Aida concludes in a stifling tomb.

After the Requiem in 1874, Verdi maintained a mortifying silence for 13 years, so that Otello and Falstaff counted as a return to life. Othello is inconsolable at the end of Shakespeare's play, mocked by the nullity which Iago has exposed. Verdi's music allows him the mercy of a remembered happiness, and he expires while murmuring a phrase from the opening love duet. The exhausted Falstaff at the end of the opera understands that the world will continue in his absence, and jovially acknowledges its right to do so. Beyond tragedy, Verdi arrived at his own humane, agnostic version of a divine comedy.

The sun to which Gollancz alluded might be an image of Verdi's warming generosity. Opera is always returning us to the paradox of soul and body. The difference between the way Pavarotti sounds and the way he looks (not to mention the way he behaves off-stage) sums up the contradictions of our human state. In more credulous days, music was thought to be the gift of a god, like the soul: Apollo endowed Orpheus with his miraculous capacity to sing. Verdi knew that we could expect no such metaphysical favours. The voice, like the spirit, was an inexplicable and probably undeserved bequest - a mysterious particle of grace implanted in all of us, invisible from the outside. Rigoletto should not be mistaken for his hump, or Falstaff for his belly; Violetta should not be reduced to the flesh she trades in.

Verdi's sympathy and compassion are rare in opera. It's an art which requires superhuman talents, and has always been better suited to gods or demons than to earth-bound mortals. Don Giovanni, for instance, is an organ, not a person. He can feel pleasure, and is made to feel pain by the chilling grip of the Commendatore; but he lacks the ability to suffer, which as Verdi once said - and as the heart-broken elegies of Leonora in La forza del destino demonstrate - is the vocation of human beings. The sudden clemency of the Countess at the end of Le nozze di Figaro seems superficial or even remiss by contrast with Violetta's anguished renunciation. More often in Mozart, knowledge precludes forgiveness. The characters in Cosi fan tutte can only survive by forgetting what they have done to each other.

In Verdi the great moral spectacle is the sight of individuals learning - at a terrible and often lethal cost - how to love. This is not always pretty to watch, since it involves the destruction of a personality which most of us wear like armour: hence the collapse of Amneris in Aida, destroyed when she belatedly acquires a conscience and a concern for the fate of others. Nor is there any sweet pretence that goodness will save the world. The remorseful pleas of Amneris are unavailing, and though Gilda in Rigoletto dies in place of the Duke, he doesn't know, wouldn't thank her, and has no doubt already forgotten who she is. Moral beauty is as perishable as a beautiful voice, and as precious; the closest we ever get to heaven is a high C.

Wagner's music praises inhumanity, or the mystical transcendence of human life: the war-whooping of Brunnhilde in Die Walkure on the one hand, the voluptuous suicide of Isolde on the other. Gotterdammerung ends with the incineration of a polluted world, which is obliterated by a flood. In Strauss's Daphne we see a woman turn herself into a tree, blissfully dematerialising as she sings. Verdi, uniquely, composed what Wordsworth called "the music of humanity" - except that, not being a fog-bound Englishman, he knew that this music was not still and sad, as Wordsworth specified, but loud, vital, pulsing, elated and (to use the word with which Otello dispels the tempest) exultant.

! Covent Garden's 1996 Verdi Festival includes performances of seven operas - 'Don Carlos', 'Nabucco', 'Giovanna d'Arco', 'La traviata' (with Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, relayed live to the Big Screen in Covent Garden Piazza, 15 & 18 July), 'Il corsaro', 'Alzira' and 'Don Carlo' - as well as study days, lectures, masterclasses, sing-alongs, an exhibition, live R3 broadcasts, and so on. Most events: ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), Tues to 20 July. 'Don Carlo' (BBC Proms): Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), 20 July.