The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Giuseppe Verdi and La Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 in the village of Roncole, now part of Italy but then under French control. As has been the case with most great composers, his musical talents were recognized at a young age, and he soon moved to nearby Busetto to pursue his music studies under the watchful eye of an arts patron named Antonio Barezzi. During the course of his studies, he fell in love with and married Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita. In the tumultuous years that followed (1838-1840), his life turned tragic as disease claimed the lives of both their children and then Margherita herself. All this happened about the time that the first of his twenty-six operas, Oberto, appeared with moderate success.

Many Verdi scholars have commented on the significance of the father-daughter relationship in Verdi’s operas (Rigoletto, Aida, Simon Boccanegra, to name a few), suggesting a link between this phenomenon and Verdi’s memories of his own deceased children. In La Traviata, Violetta serves as a surrogate daughter for Germont, and there is tenderness in their music reminiscent of the exchanges between Rigoletto and Gilda. By the end of this scene, in fact, Germont seems more sympathetic toward Violetta than he is toward his own son.

Verdi’s attempt to write a comedy, Un giorno di regno, despite his heartbreak, was less successful, and he had all but decided to abandon composing when a friend virtually thrust a libretto at him and forced him to take it home to read. The story, set in the Biblical time of the Babylonian Exile, contained one number which haunted Verdi’s imagination – a chorus of Israelite exiles longing for their homeland. Thus was born Nabucco, which was to become a major success, and the rest is history. The aforementioned chorus was called “Va pensiero,” and the audience understood that Verdi was thinking not about ancient times but rather about the still unformed Italian nation, suffering under the rule of various foreign powers. In the 1840s, Verdi composed several operas, most of which he realized were not his best work, as economic necessity forced him to write more quickly than he would have liked. He sometimes referred to these as his “galley years.”

In 1847, Verdi reconnected with Giuseppina Strepponi, who had sung the lead female role in Nabucco but had recently retired from the stage due to voice problems. She was to become the second love of his life, and the couple began living together shortly afterward, though they scandalized their neighbors by avoiding the marriage altar for over a decade. In particular, he was criticized by his former patron and father-in-law, Barezzi, prompting the reply, “in my house lives a free, independent woman.”

There can be little doubt that in Giuseppina – whose very name was the feminine form of Verdi’s own – the composer had found a true soul-mate. She was a woman of great intellect, who had genuine input into the creation of Verdi’s operas, as well as – if we are to believe her portraits – great physical beauty. Verdi biographer Mary-Jane Phillips-Matz has stated that she was the true model for Violetta. Consider a letter she wrote to Verdi later in life, in light of Violetta‘s sentiments in the opera: “Verdi, I am not worthy of you; and the love which you have for me is a gift, a balm to the heart….Continue to love me, love me even after death, when I present myself before Divine Justice, rich with your love and your prayers.” The two eventually married in 1859, and they remained together until her death in 1897.

It was during the 1850’s that Verdi’s genius truly manifested itself. Rigoletto, which had its premiere in 1851, was a major advance in the art of dramatic story-telling through music. This was followed by the somewhat old-fashioned Il Trovatore, which was nevertheless a great success in its day.

Early in 1852, Verdi and Strepponi attended a performance of La dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camelias) in Paris, which Alexandre Dumas fils had adapted from his popular novel. Even before he obtained a copy of the play later that year, he began composing the music for what was to become La Traviata. The opera had its premiere March 6, 1853 in Venice. Unfortunately, the cast was less than ideal, including a soprano who was too heavy to convincingly portray a woman dying of tuberculosis, a tenor not in best voice, and a baritone who resented being in an opera in which the tenor was the leading man. Verdi, in one of his letters, described the premiere as a “disaster,” and asked, “Was it my fault or the singers? Only time will tell.” This description was an exaggeration. Verdi was called from the wings for several curtain calls during the performance, and most of the critics recognized the greatness of the opera despite the weakness of the cast. A year later, the opera was performed in the same city and was an unqualified success.

Along with two of its immediate predecessors, Stiffelio and Rigoletto, La Traviata represented a major shift in Verdi’s writing, a more personal, intimate story than those of the great historical epics which had previously been his trademark. Opera historian Jonathan Abarbanel suggests that this was the result of changes in stagecraft that were taking place in Verdi’s time, most notably the replacement of candle-light with gas lamps, which allowed the theater to be darkened during performances. Along with this was the lowering of the orchestra pit. Before these innovations, he argues, opera-going was largely a social affair. With the darkening of the auditorium and the elimination of stage boxes (boxes located on the sides of the stage), audiences began to socialize less and pay more attention to the action on stage, allowing composers and librettists to pursue story lines requiring more concentration on the part of the audience.

In the years which followed, Verdi continued to advance the art of opera, gradually abandoning the “hit song” approach in favor of continuous dramatic music. Among his later triumphs were Simon Boccanegra (1857), A Masked Ball (1859), The Force of Destiny (1862), Don Carlos (1867), and Aida (1871), after which he attempted to retire from composing, only to be drawn out of retirement fifteen years later when he had the opportunity to collaborate with the great librettist Arrigo Boito on two adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, Otello and Falstaff.

Verdi, however, was not only a composer. He was also an Italian patriot, deeply concerned with the future of a nation which, throughout much of his life, was actually a conglomeration of several separate states linked only by geographical proximity and linguistic ties. He was active in the “Risorgimento,” a movement calling for the establishment of an Italian nation. Because of the role his music had played in supporting this movement, when independence was achieved Verdi was selected to serve in the Italian parliament, which he did briefly, though he played a largely ceremonial role. Several of his operas reflect the goals of the Risorgimento: the “Va pensiero” chorus from Nabucco (previously discussed), the “Patria opressa” from Macbeth, cries of “Viva Italia” in La battaglie di Legnano, and the scene in Simon Boccanegra in which the title character admonishes his senate that their loyalty must be to Italy, not Venice.

In his final years, Verdi devoted much of his time to the establishment of a retirement home for opera singers, an institution that stands to this day. He died in January, 1901, and while he had asked for a simple funeral, when his body (along with Strepponi’s) was transferred to Rome the following month, a national day of mourning was declared and mourners lined the streets. Spontaneously, they joined together to sing the song which had first united them in love of Italy: “Va pensiero.”

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