I had always wanted to see Sant’Agata, Giuseppe Verdi’s house some miles from his home town of Busseto in the Po Valley. He loved it so much, loved it like the peasant he claimed he always was, the sowing and reaping, the grapes for his own wine, the building and extending, the buying of another field, and then another.
He was able to buy the farmhouse and some surrounding land in 1848, when he was thirty-five and already the maestro, with twelve performed operas behind him. Eighteen forty-eight was of course the year of revolutions, of some of Italy’s bitterest struggles for independence, which Verdi so powerfully supported and incorporated into the themes of some of these operas. “Honor to all Italy,” he was writing to a friend, “which at this moment is truly great”:
Do you imagine I want to occupy myself now with notes, with sounds? There is, and should be, only one kind of music pleasing to the ears of the Italians of 1848—the music of the guns!
He was drunk with joy, he wrote—though the hour had not yet quite come. At around the same time the retired soprano Giuseppina Strepponi was writing from Paris to a colleague that “all the notes in the world might go to the devil if there were room for hope that Italy could become great, united, strong and free!”
The year 2001 was the centenary of the death of the composer who became the symbol of Italy’s Risorgimento. Opera houses around the world were performing his work, Parma was full of tourists, and some of us were bussed out to see the birthplace and Busseto and Sant’Agata. Verdi had not ceased, and probably never will cease, to be his country’s hero. Dignified, severe, hugely generous: he is loved. There were daily bulletins when he was dying; traffic was quietened and shutters drawn. His memorial service had every kind of grandeur, with “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco sung by a chorus of eight hundred under Toscanini’s baton. “Verdi was our great unifier,” it was declared,
when the wave of his passionate music, something that the enemy could not seize, embodied the idea of the nation, which swept freely from the Alps to the sea, setting our hearts on fire.
As a sentimentalist and Italophile, an adorer of tragedy and passion rather than musically literate, I am unashamed of being among the Verdi worshipers. But Sant’Agata itself was a disappointment—overgrown by huge trees and consequently very dark, with only a few rooms left open to the public. Few mementoes there of La Strepponi, Verdi’s mistress and then wife, who was often immured in the house while Verdi was away and at work. How she hated it! The solitude, the rain, the flat muddy countryside. And no children.
I had been drawn to the story of Giuseppina Strepponi’s life partly because of that question of the children (so great a factor in real life and so ignored in biographies) and partly because of her link with La Traviata. One also need not be ashamed, I think, of preferring Traviata out of all the Verdian operas; the whole world has done so. And everyone knows that its heroine—truly heroic—the “Strayed One” or the “Fallen Woman,” is a courtesan who sacrifices herself for love and poverty and dies of TB (so romantic in fiction, so viscous and disgusting in real life) in her lover’s arms. He has returned, of course, just in time for this. “Oh gioia!” But you will recover, the tenor sings. She faints a little. “Gran Dio,” she mourns, “morir si giovane!” To die so young, after the long night of tears. As she does; as many, many girls did.*
But not, in fact, Giuseppina Verdi, who died at eighty-two at Sant’Agata, stout and short of breath and praying, in her will, that she and her husband would be reunited in Heaven.
Strepponi had never been, professionally, a courtesan; but certainly she had strayed, as was almost inevitable for a young woman working on the stage. Her musician father had died early, and she had become almost the sole support of her mother and siblings. She had entered the Milan Conservatorio at fifteen and won scholarships and praise all around—“a voice of the greatest clarity, very limpid and beautiful,” it was said. And more: “deep inner feeling,” “all heart and temperament.” By the time Verdi had sought out the prima donna assoluta for Nabucco, she had sung in Milan, Venice, Rome, Vienna, everywhere; done Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini; had been Norma, Lucia, Anna Bolena, Cenerentola, Desdemona, and a great many others now forgotten. And this over a period of only eight years; she was twenty-seven when the aspiring Verdi needed her for Nabucco.
The Italian opera stage in Strepponi’s time was a crude place. Quantity was more the point than quality—though that was keenly understood too. Good singers could let themselves be worked like horses. Opera houses were cheap and crowded and noisy with cheers and boos. “Milton might easily have taken his idea of Pandemonium from the inside of an Italian Theatre,” wrote Hazlitt from his travels—“its heat, its gorgeousness and its gloom.” There was no question of treating music as something hushed and holy, of fine voices as treasures to be nursed along. And yet Italy did love its native opera, screamed and shouted and quarreled over it.
That La Strepponi’s voice was being worked to death was noted by music critics. Often she had to carry an indifferent performance single-handed. Over time her voice thinned, her stamina waned, she coughed so much that she had to turn toward the wings. She worked in this way because she had a mother, sisters, and a brother to support. And there was another reason for declining health: she was constantly pregnant. “All heart and temperament” she was indeed.
The story of Strepponi’s children is hard to accept from our present-day point of view. She worked onstage visibly pregnant, gave birth, and handed the babies out to the orphanage or foster home. Was this so much worse than the abortions she would have had today? There were probably three children and two fathers. From her letters of the time it is clear that there was no question of her glorying in being a free spirit. “A year at this pace and perhaps I shall be no more, and all claims upon one, all conflicts, end beyond the tomb. My poor children! My poor family!” she was writing in 1841; and “I have been cruelly treated under the mantle of love…. God help me!” The next year a document was being signed by three doctors stating that she could no longer work, since she was feverish, losing weight, and liable to consumption.
Verdi had also lost children. He had married Margherita Barezzi from his home town when he was twenty-three and two children were born. In less than four years, all three had died, mother and babies, from the indistinct causes that are all we can gather from pre-modern times. At twenty-seven he was completely alone. It would be wrong, I think, to believe that, just because such deaths were more common at the time, they were any the less grieved over. These massive blows must have schooled Verdi in that sense of the tragic that is the great Verdian strength—in those haunting premonitory motifs, the plangent calls of a single flute.
As is so well known, after his loss and after finishing the unsuccessful Un giorno di regno, Verdi swore never to return to music. There are varying versions of how the Nabucco libretto caught his eye and coaxed him back, and how into the “Va, pensiero” melody he poured his own grief, and his country’s. He had the usual difficulties in getting the work produced, and needed Strepponi for the demanding role of Abigaille, which she had appreciated as soon as she saw it. Nabucco eventually was, of course, a huge success and has been ever since.
Verdi at the time was the young genius on his way up; Strepponi, the diva beginning her slide downward. Though she was able to play Abigaille finely, she was soon to be semiretired and advertising singing lessons. It seems that it was around 1848 that these two, in their thirties, already old friends, and with their tragedies behind them, began to live together. Strepponi was an excellent letter-writer, and there are a number of letters that show how she cherished her maestro, feeling herself the strayed one who had been taken under his wing. She felt it keenly, though, that the Bussetans ostracized her as an immoral woman when Verdi took her to live there (they were not to marry for a further ten years). Often left at hotels or Sant’ Agata—that “Vale of Yawns, if not of Tears,” she said—while Verdi was busy, she wrote in their eleventh year together,
Without you I am a body without a soul. I am different (and I think you are too) from those people who have need of frequent separations to revive their affection. I would stay with you for years, without boredom or satiety.
He alone in the world has
never caused me sorrow! So be it as you wish; let’s go back to Sant’ Agata, and your will be done, as long as I have my eyes open and the strength to tell you that I love you with all my being!
But—the children? In the same year she writes to Verdi that “we shall have no children (since God, perhaps, wishes to punish me for my sins, in depriving me of any legitimate joy before I die)” and hopes that he will not produce any by other women. This sounds more as if her rapid pregnancies had left her barren than suggesting that Verdi had set his face against a family—though in fact they were still unmarried at the time of that letter, and Verdi’s code might not have allowed for illegitimate children. I suspect that he may have wanted to keep the memory of his own two lost children inviolate.
Of Strepponi’s children placed in foster homes, it is known that one died (“angel-makers,” these fosterers were called in England) but that she kept in touch with the boy, Camillino, and arranged for his education. It has been suggested that when Verdi and Strepponi did marry it might have been for Camillino’s sake, as he reached his twenty-first birthday. When he was apprenticed to a sculptor it was, in a sense, at Verdi’s expense, since Strepponi no longer had any means to earn money. Could we have expected him to do more than that? And though Giuseppina was truly grateful for being “rescued” with affection and honor, could we expect her not to long for legitimate marriage? It won’t do to see these happenings in a modern context.
And the other child, the daughter placed in the turnstile for abandoned infants at the Ospedale degli Innocenti and never again traced? How could she not have been thought about, wondered about, and been one of the causes of her mother’s deep melancholy in later life? The couple did, in their fifties, legally adopt a second cousin of Verdi’s, the child of penniless peasants who was living with her grandfather. Though she was, of course, sent away to be educated by the nuns, Giuseppina was deeply fond of her. When Maria married, Verdi provided the wedding and a house for the couple.
Lost children were not to complicate the plot of La Traviata, in either Dumas’s Dame aux camélias or its dramatic adaptation. Verdi and Strepponi had been together for a few years when his interest was aroused by Dumas’s story of a Parisian courtesan; it seems likely that they saw the play when it opened in Paris in 1852. In the original novel, the story ends bleakly with Violetta’s death, alone. The romantic ending—Alfredo, renounced by her for the sake of his family’s reputation, reaching her bedside just before she dies—may be too “soft” but is surely the making of the drama. A consumptive courtesan’s life was not soft; but we need the myth. Alfredo might have, in real life, married Violetta and got rather tired of her, as did Verdi eventually with his love—but that is not the point. It is a myth, really, of rebirth and death and again rebirth. We die: but in the arms of undying love.
Some months after the play’s première in Paris, Verdi’s librettist Piave wrote from Sant’Agata (“it rains and rains and I fear we shall all be transformed into frogs”) to say that Verdi was excited about a new project. This must have been Traviata. Verdi was writing that he had a contemporary subject now, one that some might have avoided because of morality or “a thousand other silly scruples.” He was held up, as usual, over the choice of a soprano and was “in an infernal bad temper,” Piave said—the great man, it must be admitted, was often irascible. As a matter of fact, it was partly poor casting that made this most loved of operas a failure at first. Verdi revised it, and when put on again it was a huge success. “Indescribable enthusiasm!” “An unexampled triumph!”
Partly we love Traviata just because it is contemporary for the time of its writing, not encumbered by those huge Verdian historical themes and casts that are so confusing. Though we think of it perhaps as supremely Romantic, it appeared at a time when there was a move toward realism in France; Millet and Courbet painting peasants, Flaubert and Balzac breaking new ground in realistic fiction. The demimonde itself—not actually too pretty a place—was being examined in a way that was never permitted in English novels. Verdi doesn’t sanitize Violetta: when she first veers toward falling in love with Alfredo, she is given an aria—a declaration of self-hate—in praise of pleasure as all that she is fit for. She falls in love with Alfredo not because of youth or good looks, but because, out of all the guests crowding her party, only he notices that she is ill and needs care. The self-contempt of the “fallen” woman, her gratitude for the touch of almost maternal care, were surely learned by Verdi from Giuseppina—this shows up indeed in her letters. And when at the end Violetta sings of the pain of morir si giovane, he perhaps thought of his first wife.
So—two people with great losses behind them meet and love and stay together. But, of course, just as Sant’ Agata was darker and gloomier than I had expected, the romance is not quite perfect. Oh Dio! How I wish it were! There was no promiscuity or divorce, but later—there was another woman. Verdi and Giuseppina were legally married and approaching old age when she heard rumors about an affair with Teresa Stolz, a younger German soprano who had sung for him in Aida. She was distraught: it must have been what she had always feared. It even reached the newspapers in a degrading way worthy of the twenty-first century (“Stolz, this Temptress Eve, directed too many covetous glances toward the Author of Ernani, who, in a moment of desire, fell at the feet of the God of Love,” and so on). For some years, Giuseppina had been noting in her diary her husband’s increasing irritability both with herself and with the servants, in terms that will sound far from unfamiliar to most people: it was not what she actually said, he would complain, it was the way she said it. Noble, brilliant men really should not have such extremely commonplace feet of clay.
To a friend she wrote that by now she could hardly believe in anything or anyone:
I have suffered so many and such cruel disillusionments that I am disgusted with life. You will say that everyone has suffered disenchantments, but that means that others, stronger than I am, have kept alive some hope and some trace of faith in the future. I, on the other hand, now laugh, when someone says that they love me. Even my religious convictions have disappeared and I hardly believe in God when I look at the marvels of creation!
Giuseppina, however, did gain some counsel and support from the Church; she had always remained devout, while Verdi was a staunch freethinker. She acquired a certain dignity, which she needed: the frequent presence of Stolz constituted almost a kind of ménage à trois. She was expected to maintain, and did maintain, a courtesy toward the younger woman. There remained, of course, the depressive, self-hating streak that had always been a part of her, and that surely brought thoughts of her lost children. Of her son, Camillino, it is only known that he became a medical student and died at the age of twenty-five.
It would be nice to believe that Verdi’s passion for his large Germanic soprano faded away, but he was still writing love letters to her after La Strepponi’s death, when he was eighty-seven. Still, he never left his wife, and she could stand legitimately beside Italy’s great man. Perhaps there were good moments as well as bad: at sixty-seven she was writing to him that she “still loved him like mad,” sometimes with a kind of love fever unknown to doctors. While she was aging and dwindling, he went on to his last great operas. They worked together for the people of their district, making charitable disbursements, endowing hospitals and schools, and, at one time of great local poverty, running a soup kitchen from Sant’Agata. When floods wrecked the Po Valley, Verdi organized a benefit concert for the homeless. The soprano was La Stolz.
Verdi was seventy-three when Otello was staged to huge success, and Falstaff came six years later. Giuseppina Verdi, once the incomparable Strepponi, was present at these triumphs; earlier, after the tumultuous reception of Otello, she, with Verdi and the librettist Boito, had been physically lifted in their carriage by enthusiasts, and music was played under the hotel windows all night.
During Giuseppina’s last illness at Sant’Agata, Verdi was at her bedside. Her will asked that he keep with him the gold bracelet, given to her in Naples, inscribed “To my dear Peppina.” During the few years remaining to him before the great memorial crowds filled the streets of Milan, he was supported by friends, among them La Stolz. Oh, how she spoils the story of the strayed one!
November 6, 2003