For a period of 50 years in the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi dominated the world of Italian opera. His first great opera, Nabucco, made him a national figure when it was unveiled at La Scala in Milan in 1842. At the same venue in 1893, his final masterpiece, Falstaff, showed him still a force to be reckoned with when a group of composers two generations younger than himself was beginning to make its mark. From an international perspective, by this point Verdi represented not merely Italian opera, but virtually Italy itself.
Part of his dominance can be ascribed to good timing. When he composed his very first opera, Oberto, in 1839, Bellini was dead, Rossini had retired from operatic composition, and Donizetti, his eyes largely on Paris and Vienna, had less than a decade to live. Within Italy itself, lesser figures such as Saverio Mercadante and Giovanni Pacini maintained active careers. Verdi’s initial style was certainly less complex or learned than that of Mercadante; foreign critics, like the influential Henry Chorley in London, constantly referred to his music as crude and noisy – which, compared to the later works of Donizetti, it was.
But, even at this date, Verdi’s music possessed virtues that impressed and excited audiences. Part of the appeal of the early operas lies in their sheer immediacy. They make their points quickly, viscerally and with a sense of what works in the theatre.
Over the ensuing decades, Verdi would develop and refine every aspect of his art, eventually acquiring a subtlety that enabled him to respond to the drama with finesse as well as power. Of course, there were subtleties in the earliest works that gave them distinction; an effect such as the six solo cellos introducing the prophet Zaccaria’s aria in Nabucco would have appealed, as it still does, to connoisseurs. Even so, the more mature Verdi could be critical of his early scores. When he revised the 1847 Macbeth for a Parisian production in 1865, he wrote of ‘passages that are weak and, what is worse, lacking in character’, replacing them with more dramatically focused material.
Verdi was never ashamed of the popularity of his music. ‘When you go to India, or the interior of Africa, you’ll hear Trovatore,’ he wrote in 1862, with slight exaggeration (though within six years of its 1853 premiere the opera had been performed on six continents). He also believed that the true measure of a work’s value was not the critical reaction at the first performance, but the box-office at the sixth.
Verdi the man was a complex individual, capable on the one hand of great acts of generosity, and on the other of a harshness that is, at times, shocking. At the end of his life, he claimed the greatest of his works to be the retirement home he founded in Milan for elderly operatic artists fallen on hard times. He also endowed a hospital at Villanova, not far from his birthplace. His talent made him a wealthy man and numerous acts of personal kindness demonstrate his philanthropy.
Nevertheless, people who fell foul of him – a group that included his own parents, whom he repudiated after a major disagreement whose exact nature remains unknown – were rarely forgiven. His rejection of the conductor Angelo Mariani, a one-time close associate and devoted interpreter, was pursued with vindictive intensity; again, it is uncertain whether rivalry over the soprano Teresa Stolz – Mariani’s fiancée and subsequently, according to gossip, Verdi’s mistress – led to the end of their friendship.
That we still cannot be certain of such matters – or of the mystery of whether Verdi and his partner (and later second wife) Giuseppina Strepponi had a daughter in 1851 whom they immediately abandoned – is a mark of how rigorously he maintained his privacy even while becoming one of the celebrities of his age. In later years he exaggerated the poverty of his upbringing – his innkeeper father owned property in the area of Busseto, where Verdi was born and where he returned to live in his maturity. As for religion, although Verdi gave the 19th century one of its greatest religious works in the shape of the Requiem, he was in all but name an atheist. That he never forgave local clerics for opposing his youthful candidature for a post in Busseto is arguably apparent from the various negative portrayals of priests in his operas – though these also have a larger context in papal opposition to a united Italy and in Verdi’s overall liberal stance.
Verdi began his life as a subject of the duchy of Parma in an Italy largely enclosed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both he and his music were associated with the Risorgimento cause that would turn the disparate states that made up the peninsular into a unified nation. Verdi himself served as a deputy in the first Italian parliament for four years from 1861.
While patriotism motivated Verdi just as nationalism did his exact contemporary Wagner, it neither consumed him nor contained any racist overtones. He did warn, however, of the danger of Italian culture losing its essential character by being influenced by foreign – and specifically – German techniques. Wary of the impact of Wagner the artist, he offered his own refutation of Wagner’s theories and methods in the renaissance of Italianate lyricism exemplified by Otello and Falstaff.
The fierceness of Verdi’s manner in his personal dealings – he called himself ‘the bear of Busseto’ – had a more positive side in his artistic collaborations. The ceaseless demands he made of his librettists – notably the loyal Francisco Maria Piave, who wrote the texts for ten of his 28 operas – was borne of a determination to take the drama every bit as seriously as the music, and to make them work together for the same artistic aim. Nothing could be allowed to get in the way of this goal, which Verdi pursued in score after score with an integrity that has been matched by only a handful of other operatic composers, and exceeded by none.