About the Composer

Italy in the 19th century bubbled with politics and music. Over roughly 50 years, a patchwork of independent states on the Italian peninsula consolidated into a united kingdom, with Rome as its capital. And opera flourished as never before, expressing not just artistic expression but the country’s political identity.

One composer dominated Italian opera houses in the 19th century, and to this day personifies Italian opera to the world more than any other: Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi’s 26 operas, written over 54 years, was an unstoppable outpouring of musical genius. It formed a bridge between the florid bel canto operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini and the true-to-life verismo works of Puccini.

Verdi was born in 1813 in the small northern Italian village of Roncole, near Parma, to a family of modest means. He owed his musical education in Milan to financial support from the man who became his father-in-law. His early life was difficult and sad. His two infant children died, then his wife, all within two years. His first opera was a modest success, the second one bombed, and a depressed Verdi was on the verge of quitting the business.

To the rescue came the director of La Scala, who offered Verdi a commission plus an introduction to Giuseppina Strepponi, a well known diva. “Nabucco,” debuted in 1842 with Strepponi in the cast. The opera was a smash hit and Verdi and Strepponi became companions and eventually married.

“Nabucco’s” story of the exile of the Jews from Babylon struck a patriotic chord at the time of Italy’s struggle to unify. Over the years, the solemn chorus “Va, pensiero,” or “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Act III, took on a nostalgic life of its own. Many Italians know it by heart and it’s often sung at large gatherings. It was a serious contender at one point to be Italy’s national anthem.

“Nabucco” cemented Verdi’s reputation as both a composer and a passionate patriot. His name even became a shouted slogan of national unity: “Viva VERDI,” the last word an unsubtle acronym for Victor Emmanuel II, the soon to be Italian king. Verdi served briefly in Italy’s first parliament. He was irascible by nature and the abrasive political views that crept into his operas had, on occasion, to be reined in by censors.

“Rigoletto,” for example, was originally set in France with King Francis I cast as the licentious lead character. Italy’s powers that be, concerned about offending the reputation of even a long dead European monarch, said “No!” and King Francis was transformed in the story into the person we know today: the Duke of Mantua, ruler of a minor Italian duchy.

Similarly, the murder of Sweden’s King Gustav III was the original centerpiece of “Un ballo in maschera” until Verdi was persuaded to switch the venue from Stockholm to colonial New England and invent a new fictional character to assassinate — Riccardo, the governor of Boston! The solution to avoid offending the Swedes was ludicrous and later productions thankfully reverted to the original Swedish venue and monarch.

Some critics, their biases lodged in the 18th century when opera plots were typically frothy with happy endings, found Verdi’s works melodramatic and a bit crude. In Verdi operas, to be sure, there’s usually a dead body or two laying on stage as the curtain falls.

But who cares. Just look at the roll call of masterworks in the last half of Verdi’s career: ”Luisa Miller,” “Il trovatore,” “La traviata,” “Simon Boccanegra,” “Macbeth,” “Don Carlo,” “La forza del destino” and the opera spectacular of them all, “Aida.”

Add to this list the magnificent “Requiem,” written in 1874 in memory of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni. A staple in the repertoire of every serious chorale.

To end his career on the highest possible note, Verdi came out of semiretirement and leaned on his love of Shakespeare to compose perhaps his greatest tragic opera, “Otello,” followed five years later by the rollicking “Falstaff.” La Scala’s ticket prices went through the roof for “Falstaff’s” debut and audience applause and “bravos” at the curtain reportedly lasted
an hour.

Verdi lived to the dawn of the 20th century. He died of a stroke in 1901, at age 87. He had previously founded a retirement home for musicians in Milan, Casa di Riposo, and his grave is there, next to Giuseppina, his beloved companion of 50 years.

Italy wept at his death. At his funeral, Arturo Toscanini conducted a combined symphony and chorus. An estimated 200,000 crowded the streets of Milan and, as if on cue, softly sang “Va, pensiero.”

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson