With the centenary of Verdi's death approaching, Conrad Wilson considers the composer's legacy

AVERDI opera, said Shaw, is basically a dispute between the tenor, who wants to make love to the soprano, and the baritone, who objects. It's a truth which Il trovatore, La traviata, Rigoletto, A Masked Ball, The Force of Destiny, Otello, and most of his other works confirm, but there are better reasons why the centenary of his death, which falls a week on Saturday, will be so lavishly celebrated this year.

What is it about Verdi which makes him, in operatic terms, more than ever the man of the moment? Half a century ago, only a few of his works were considered worth performing. Most of the rest, as he himself ruefully put it, were merely products of his ''years in the galleys''. Even such an established masterpiece as A Masked Ball was an unknown quantity when the Edinburgh Festival courageously staged it in 1948 with the flame-haired Ljuba

Welitsch as the heroine. As for Falstaff, the crowning

glory of the Verdi canon,

it was long considered

to be caviar to the general - ''where,'' as people

continually asked, ''are

its arias?''

There will be no shortage of arias in two Verdi gala concerts at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 2 and March 19, the first of them

featuring Claire Rutter and other soloists with

the City of Glasgow

Chorus, the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Lowland Band of the Scottish Division, and the Scottish Concert Orchestra under Robin Stapleton. The second, entitled Viva Verdi!, forms part of Opera Nazionale Italiana's first British tour, complete with its own orchestra, and with a date at Edinburgh Festival Theatre the previous night, though the most impressive gala concert looks like being the Halle's in Manchester, with Mark Elder conducting whole scenes from Don Carlos and other works on January 25 and 27. So far, the RSNO has no plans for a Verdi celebration.

Today not one of Verdi's 27 operas is deemed unworthy of performance, and Covent Garden, even in its recent doom-laden moments, never lost sight of the fact that it intended to celebrate the centenary by staging all 27 of them - a hope now rapidly dwindling. Scottish Opera, faced with money problems of its own, is having to make do this season with just one work, but at least it is Il trovatore, ambitiously written, structurally fascinating, filled with energetic music, and with a plot easier to grasp than it is made out to be. Whether the company is keeping more Verdi up its sleeve for next autumn remains to be seen. Let us hope so. The long-

awaited Don Carlos, with its huge vocal demands, is the sort of financial and artistic challenge Scottish Opera enjoys facing in times of stress.

The need to counterbalance Wagner (in the form of the ongoing new Ring cycle) with Verdi is in any case essential to the well-being of any opera company. The two men were, after all, exact contemporaries - what a year 2013 is going to be! - and they shared similar ideals. Each of them towered over other operatic composers of their period, each was aware of the other's achievements, and it is still possible to sit in the seat in box 23 at the Bologna Opera from which Verdi first heard Lohengrin (he had intended to see it in secret, but was spotted with his suitcase on the platform of Bologna's railway station). ''The action,'' he jotted in his programme, ''moves slowly, as do the words.''

Verdi's action seldom moves slowly. The one thing he was cautious about was the ability of Italian audiences to take new ideas in their stride. While working on Il trovatore, he spoke of his longing to

create an opera in which the music proceeded in Wagnerian spans, each act performed with-

out interruption, avoiding all the cavatinas, duets, trios, choruses, finales that were expected of him. Not until Falstaff, at the end of his long life, did he take this risk, and the work, for all its vitality, remains the least popular of his mature masterpieces.

Yet although Il trovatore lacks the golden flow of Falstaff - it seems more than ever the blackest of Verdi's tragedies, not least because producers (led by Goetz Friedrich) have taken to having

Manrico beheaded, against the composer's wishes, in full public view - its four acts cry out to be staged as four inexorable entities, in which each number can be made to lead directly into the next, without traditional Italian pauses for applause. Only when Azucena's Stride la Vampa proceeds, as it should do, into the tensest of silences, can it be said to have been sung successfully, and the music to have cast a spell of the sort Verdi intended.

Whatever Verdi's inner feelings, however, outwardly he accepted audience disruption in a way

Wagner would never have done. Improbable though it now seems, he was not above appearing on stage in mid-scene, taking a bow alongside the singers after some particularly thrilling passage had brought the show to a halt. As Italy's most famous composer, and the one who commanded the highest fees, he could doubtless have prevented this happening if he had wanted. But clearly he valued his popularity, in the same way as he valued his important position in Italy's political life. He would have been horrified today to discover that the united Italy for which he strove, and which is symbolically depicted in many of his works, is under threat from Umberto Bossi and his Northern League, who want to split the country in two.

When Verdi died, on January 27, 1901, he was a man at ease with himself. The revolutionary moments of his early operas, particularly the choruses of exiles in Nabucco and Macbeth, had gained what is now called iconic status. He had been acknowledged as the Shakespeare of opera composers, even if his desire to write a King Lear was never fulfilled.

When, after suffering a stroke, he lay unconscious for a week in one of Milan's grandest hotels, just along the road from La Scala, traffic was re-routed and tram drivers were told not to clang their bells. Daily bulletins were hung at the hotel's entrance,

giving details of the dying octogenarian's heart and respiration rates.

At the funeral, which brought the entire city to a standstill, Puccini was one of the official mourners. Could any great composer today have such an effect upon a nation? It takes the death of a Diana, Princess of Wales, to inspire that kind of public

fervour. Yet when, in 1962, Scottish Opera first staged a Verdi opera, the sense of achievement was potent. ''Tonight Otello,'' proclaimed the poster outside the King's Theatre, Glasgow. The boldness of the words said it all, even more than the plucky

Pelleas et Melisande of the previous year. Verdi spoke to Scottish Opera's audiences in a way Debussy could never have done, and it was through him that Scotland first realised that it had gained a national opera company.

l Viva Verdi!, a come-and-sing event in aid of the Waverley Care Trust, is at the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, on Saturday, January 27.