The Public and Private Verdi

Classic Arts Features   The Public and Private Verdi
How La traviata reflects the private life of its composer.

Giuseppe Verdi sought ferociously to separate his public life as a composer from his private life. Verdi, the public figure, was not only a beloved artist whose operas dominated Italian theaters during his long career, but he was also a member of the first national parliament and a political and moral force for his compatriots. Verdi, the man, on the other hand, tried to wall himself off from curious eyes within the villa he had constructed at Sant'Agata, near Busseto, the city in which he spent his youth. But separating the public part of a life from the private has never been simple, as artists, athletes, and political figures have long been aware, and it has become ever more difficult in the modern world. How would Verdi have reacted to paper money ostentatiously displaying his image? And what would he have made of a sample form on the walls of every Italian post office filled out with the hypothetical name of one "Verdi, Giuseppe"?

Yet a composer's work and his political, social, and private life intersect in both expected and unexpected ways. The texts of Verdi's operas are not simply the products of decisions taken by the composer and his librettists in full artistic freedom. Instead, they reflect the social and political worlds in which they were produced, as Verdi's endless bouts with Austrian, Papal, and Royal censors in pre-unification Italy demonstrate. And not only do the librettos of Verdi's operas interact with his political and social world, they also reflect his personal history, his emotional states, his hopes and fears.

In one remarkable case, we can read his personal life directly into the French text of Jérusalem, written for the Opéra of Paris in 1847. Although this work is a revision of an earlier Italian opera, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Verdi decided to make such extensive changes in the original work that he wrote Jérusalem out anew, thus creating a complete autograph manuscript for his first French opera. The result was a public document, intended for copyists, publishers, and performers. Yet hiding within this public document is a private moment, indeed, a defining moment in the composer's emotional life.

Giuseppina Strepponi, the prima donna whose presence as the first Abigaille helped to guide the success of Nabucco for "her" Verdi in 1842, now lived in Paris in difficult circumstances. Her voice, already on the decline at the time of Nabucco, was no longer adequate for operatic performance, while her personal history, which included having given birth to several illegitimate children, left her without a conventional social identity. In the second act of Jérusalem, Gaston, unjustly accused of a plot against the father of his beloved Hélène and now participating in a crusade to Jerusalem, has been taken prisoner by the Emir of Palestine. When Hélène is also captured, the scene is set for a meeting of the lovers, during which Gaston laments his fate: "My glory faded, family, country, I have lost everything." Hélène assures him that she believes in his innocence and continues to love him. In that love, she vows, he will find new life. They conclude by asserting their willingness to face death together: "If I were to die with you beside me, my suffering would be sweet." Although all the music of this passage in the autograph manuscript is in the hand of Verdi, the words the characters sing are in two different hands: the reassuring words of Hélène were penned by the composer, whereas Gaston's despairing phrases were entered by Giuseppina Strepponi. In the final passage, when the characters sing together, Gaston's words continue to be in Strepponi's hand, those of Hélène in Verdi's. This declaration of operatic love, then, is simultaneously a declaration of love between Verdi and Strepponi.

Not only is this the most "romantic" story in the annals of operatic history (imagine our lovers in a Parisian garret‹and a garret it must be‹inscribing their emotions in the manuscript of an opera soon to be performed on the stage of the Opéra), it also sets aside once and for all the notion that art and life are separate spheres. Rarely, to be sure, can the underlying emotions of an operatic situation be equated so precisely with the private life of a composer. Still, if members of an audience find resonances between a work of art and their most intimate experiences, as they most assuredly do, it is unimaginable that such resonances could be absent during the compositional process.

The problem of paternity, for example, was deeply engrained in Verdi. The early death of his own children (each of whom lived a year and a few months) was a serious blow to the young man. Verdi's relationship with his own father, for whom he had equivocal feelings, was complicated further by the presence of his patron, Antonio Barezzi. Verdi went to live in Barezzi's home in 1831 so as to pursue his education in Busseto. Barezzi then helped support Verdi's musical studies in Milan, and in 1836 the composer married Barezzi's eldest daughter, Margherita. Even after his wife's death in 1840, Verdi remained close to his father-in-law, to whom he dedicated the vocal score of Macbeth in 1847. Yet when Verdi and Strepponi set up home in Sant'Agata after 1849, it was Barezzi in 1852‹a year before the composer wrote La traviata‹who expressed to Verdi the concern of the town for his unconventional mode of living. Verdi replied in these strong terms:

"It is my custom not to involve myself in the affairs of others, unless I am asked, because I demand that no one concern himself with mine.... In my house lives a free and independent woman, who loves, as I do, a solitary life.... Neither I nor she owes to anyone an accounting of our actions."

Is it any surprise that Verdi's operas are filled with touching conflicts between parents and children? Verdi's own family romance replayed itself in the stories he set to music.

The most intense of these personal stories, of course, is the one the great Verdi scholar Alessandro Luzio pointed to many years ago, when he explored parallels between La traviata, as embodied in Violetta, Alfredo, and Germont, and the emotional life of Strepponi, Verdi, and Barezzi. It is just as unacceptable to treat La traviata as a direct transposition to the operatic stage of Verdi's private life as to deny any relationship between the opera and that life. When writer Julian Budden dismisses such an idea ("the notion that Verdi, while insisting on the respect due to the woman who now shared his life, should then have insulted her himself by portraying her as a demi-mondaine is surely preposterous"), he is creating a barrier between life and art that cannot be sustained.

Indeed, the resonances between private and public are so intense that one cannot ignore them. During Verdi's stay in Rome to produce Il trovatore and to begin the composition of La traviata, Strepponi‹who did not accompany him‹wrote to him on January 3, 1853, from Livorno:

"Now, thank God, I have disappeared from society and, after so many years in which we have lived a solitary, even savage life together, my self finds itself as if swimming in space when, alone ['sola'], I must take myself to this or that spot in the inhabited and civilized world. How can you tell me aloud that you wish for your little room in S. Agata! After all, if you didn't have a contract for the opera we could, whether at S. Agata or in another desert ['deserto'], enjoy our tranquil life, enjoy our pleasures, so simple but for us so delightful."

Compare Violetta's description of herself before "Sempre libera" at the end of Act I of La traviata: "sola! abbandonata! in questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi" ("alone! abandoned! in this populous desert they call Paris"). Violetta is not Giuseppina, but the fictional and real-life characters shared the experience of being lonely women in Paris, of emerging from socially compromised backgrounds. To each woman a man offered his love freely and completely, in the face of oppressive bourgeois conventions, those conventions that the town of Busseto and Verdi's beloved father-in-law came to represent. How could Verdi and Strepponi, who freely declared their love in the pages of Jérusalem, not know that La traviata deeply touched their private lives?

That La traviata has been such an eternal audience favorite owes everything to Verdi's portrayal of its courageous heroine. Through his music we know the giddy social world in which Violetta lives (the opening party; the "Brindisi"), but from which she dreams of escaping. The growing love between Alfredo and Violetta is expressed in their quiet duet in the first act, and Violetta's hesitant reaction, her hope for a different life is the subject of her great aria, "Ah! fors' è lui." Verdi brilliantly sets off that conflict in her final cabaletta, "Sempre libera," by having Alfredo reprise his love song between the two statements of the theme in which Violetta proclaims her vision as "folly." In the second act, of course, the conflict between the lovers' idyll and the social conventions that doom it to failure are set forth in the duet between Violetta and Alfredo's father, where in a series of melodic ideas the composer traces the emotional states through which Violetta passes as she decides to sacrifice her love to preserve the honor of Alfredo and his family. Her emotions pour forth in the stunning phrase Violetta sings as she departs, "Amami, Alfredo, amami quanto t'amo" ("Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you"). The scene in which Alfredo throws his gambling winnings at Violetta's feet and calls everyone to witness that he has "paid" her is as heartbreaking in its own way as her actual death in the final act, surrounded by her beloved and his repentant father.

The surviving letters from Strepponi to Verdi are so beautiful, so full of wit and life, that we cannot help but regret the assumed destruction of the others, not to mention the loss of Verdi's letters to her. Yet we need to acknowledge that there are places where a biographer is not compelled to go, where revelations appeal more to the prurient interests of gossipmongers than to historians or musical critics. The ending of Giuseppina's love story was less tidy than Violetta's. That Giuseppina and the singer Teresa Stolz, Verdi's original Aida in Milan, were probably emotional rivals for his affections during the mid-1870s seems true enough; whether we need to regret the absence of letters that would pull back further that particular curtain is quite another matter.

The public Verdi, the private Verdi: each has its own sphere, but the spheres constantly intersect. The public operas help us understand better the private man; the private correspondence helps us understand better the public operas. More than a hundred years after his death, we still seek such understanding, because the works and the man continue to capture our imagination.

Philip Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, is general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi and the Edizione critica delle opere di Gioachino Rossini.

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