Nonfiction Books » Music & Drama » Music » Opera & Classical Music

The best books on Verdi

recommended by Francesco Izzo

Nearly everyone knows the photo of Verdi's funeral, the streets of Milan packed with people paying homage to the great composer. How did the son of an innkeeper from Le Roncole become not only one of the most famous opera composers of all time but also a prominent symbol of Italy's Risorgimento? Verdi expert Francesco Izzo discusses the books to read to best understand the man, the myths, and the music.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

Buy all books

Before we look at the best Verdi books, I want to ask: who was Giuseppe Verdi?

Giuseppe Verdi was an opera composer who, when he died, drew half of the population of Milan into the streets to pay him homage. It might seem a contradiction in terms, but Verdi was both a man who had a very specific profession—a composer and primarily an opera composer—but was also someone who became one of the most visible public figures in 19th century Italy and beyond. Verdi lived in a phase of Italian history where people were looking for models, idols, and exemplary individuals who could epitomise a country. By the time of Verdi’s death, there was this process of myth-making not only around Verdi the composer but also Verdi the Italian. All of this coalesced into creating a fairly unique figure.

His physical appearance is surprisingly familiar. Some of the most popular portraits of Verdi, especially the ones by Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, appear on the covers of countless books and on the walls of Italian restaurants around the world. One of them used to feature on the 1000 Lire banknote, long before the euro was introduced in 2002. So, there is this sense that Verdi is someone very identifiable. He is someone that streets and piazzas are named after, and not just in Italy; there is a Verdi Square in New York City, for example. Even the name might ring a bell where the music does not. We are talking about a multidimensional figure, and one can start from many perspectives.

Verdi wrote a lot of melodies that have found their way into the public consciousness. I’m thinking of “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, and perhaps the Brindisi from La Traviata. These are very immediately recognisable tunes. One anecdote is that Verdi kept “La donna è mobile” firmly under wraps, only allowing the tenor to learn it very close to the premiere, because he was worried it was so catchy that it would have got out and be sung by all the gondoliers in Venice before Rigoletto opened. I’m not sure whether it’s true.

What’s interesting here is not so much whether it’s true or not but that the story exists. What does it tell us? It tells us that Verdi’s melodies are perceived as being so infectious that they get out there and are instantly memorised—they are the perfect earworms. There was a concern at the time that new material could circulate in unauthorised ways. There were pirate publications and so forth. So, it’s perfectly plausible, even if it’s not true, that something like this could happen.

“Giuseppe Verdi was an opera composer who, when he died, drew half of the population of Milan into the streets to pay him homage”

But Verdi was a perfectionist about rehearsing. When he rehearsed Macbeth in Florence in 1847, there are these stories that Marianna Barbieri-Nini, the first Lady Macbeth, tells about how he wanted to rehearse the duet in Act I over one hundred times, paying attention to the slightest nuance. Now, is it really plausible that Verdi would rehearse painstakingly with his singers, working with them closely, getting involved in the acting and dramatic expression as well as shaping and directing the vocal lines, and then would suddenly come along and work on an aria just a few days before opening night?

How do Verdi’s operas relate to earlier Italian operatic tradition? What are the conventions he inherits and how does he innovate upon them?

That’s a great question and it’s relevant on at least two fronts. One is the issue of formal conventions. Italian opera of the first half of the 19th century is very much a system of almost mass production, if you will. Composers, together with librettists and singers, worked against very tight deadlines to fulfill a significant demand for new works. They composed, already at the time of Rossini, according to well-established structural principles. The poetry in the libretto is structured, alternating between sections of versi sciolti—meaning “loose verse”—which are used for recitatif, and versi lirici—“lyrical verse”—used for the musical sections that are more organised: the so-called cantabili and cabalettas that really form the musical and emotional core of operatic numbers. So, there is a very solidly established way of composing opera, broadly including not only the music but also the words, that tends to rely on certain structures, number after number, act after act, and opera after opera.

When Verdi begins his career, some of the librettos he sets to music actually come off the rack, so to speak. These include the libretto for Un Giorno di regno, which was written by Felice Romani more than two decades prior. The libretto for Nabucco was actually prepared for another composer who then rejected it. So, again, Verdi comes into a profession and works in a business where there is a system of production which is very clearly established and that means not just the steps that are taken to arrive at the creation and performance of an opera, but the actual musical and textual forms that are used in the individual portions of an opera. There’s a huge debt there.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Verdi is very aware of the repertoire that is successful, especially at La Scala during the 1830s. He knows Rossini, he knows Bellini, he knows Donizetti, and he knows composers who we now regard as minor and are largely forgotten. There is no indication at the outset of his career that he’s trying to get away from that conventional way of organising musical forms and musical and dramatic structures. Gradually, in the 1840s, Verdi takes steps to have greater control over the subject matter—he wants to choose his own subjects and will not just accept any libretto that is offered to him. He wants to work with material that he finds dramatically compelling. The story of his Macbeth is well-known in that regard. Just as Shakespeare becomes known in Italy the 1830s and beyond, Verdi develops a deep passion for his plays and chooses to do Macbeth; and the correspondence between Verdi and his librettist Piave shows how Verdi wanted certain numbers and certain passages to be organised in a very specific ways, and mapped closely on Shakespeare’s text.

At the same time, however, in Macbeth there’s still a great deal of that primo ottocento approach. Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria in Act I is structured as straightforwardly as one can ever dream of structuring any early nineteenth-century aria: a recitative at the beginning (which includes the reading of the letter), a slow-moving cantabile (“Vieni, t’affretta, accendere”), then a brief middle movement (called tempo di mezzo in Italian), and finally a rousing cabaletta, stated twice, that concludes the number. There’s no sense that Verdi ever radically rejected these procedures. He innovated them from within.

He became less interested in writing cabalettas as his career continued. When we get to Un ballo in maschera, you will find fewer of those than you would find in Ernani or Luisa Miller or even Trovatore. But there is no Verdian revolution or big statement of wanting to do things differently from the outset or wanting to have a clear break with tradition. Rather, there’s a sense of ongoing innovation and transformation. So, that was one point: the question of formal conventions.

The other important point is the treatment of the voice. By the mid-1840s, as Verdi became famous as an opera composer following the tremendous success of Nabucco, some of his detractors felt that one of the problems of his approach was that he was too forceful and imposed too many demands on the singers. There is the charge that his robust orchestration and other features in his music were actually damaging the old school of Italian singing. One expression that was used in was “Attila della voce” (“the Attila [the Hun] of the voice”).

Now, there is an ongoing conversation around what a singer really is. Today we oversimplify, I think. We use the term “bel canto” to refer specifically to the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The implication there is that Verdi is no bel canto composer. In so doing, we’re perpetuating this idea that Verdi comes along and changes everything, even to the point of being perceived negatively as this composer who ruins singers and doesn’t know how to write for the voice.

That has endless ramifications. Voice teachers and professional singers often feel it’s “too soon to sing Verdi”. I hear that countless times. Singers in their mid-twenties who are beginning of their careers are told “don’t sing Verdi yet”, as if Verdi was all that different from his so-called bel canto predecessors.  In reality, things happen very gradually on that front too. There is no greater evidence of that than the fact that when Verdi begins his career, he composes for singers who were extremely experienced in singing what we now call the bel canto repertoire. The tenor for whom he writes the tenor roles in his first two operas, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio and Un giorno di regno, Lorenzo Salvi, was very much a Donizetti and Bellini tenor. The soprano who went on to become Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, who had a very distinguished career, created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco but in the previous year also created the role of Adelia by Donizetti in the opera by Donizetti of the same name. The baritone Giorgio Ronconi, who was important in establishing the baritone voice as distinct from the bass voice, created several roles in Donizetti’s operas but also the title role in Nabucco.

So, it’s true that Verdi finds a voice of his own, figuratively, but it’s also true that he does so by connecting and working with the singers who are available to him—all of whom are extremely experienced and dedicated performers of the so-called bel canto operas. My argument is that, at least at the outset of his career, Verdi is actually a bel canto composer—no less so than, say, Donizetti. He’s someone through whose work the idea of what we call bel canto is gradually transformed to the point of fading, which happens for a variety of reasons involving vocal technique, aesthetics, visual elements, and more.

To sum up, if you think about formal conventions and the way in which musical and dramatic structures are organised, and if you think about the voice, what you realise is that this composer who makes his appearance in the Italian operatic arena makes no bold statements about wanting to be completely different. He is different, of course, and very individual, but there is much overlap.

Let’s take a look at your first book choice, Verdi by Julian Budden.

As soon as I became interested in opera and Verdi, which was in the early 1980s, I started looking for things to read. It came to my attention that there was this guy called Julian Budden who had written a monumental monograph in three volumes called The Operas of Giuseppe Verdi, offering an in-depth discussion of every single opera by Verdi. This man had extraordinary knowledge and had been able to write somewhere the region of 1,500 pages on this composer. And this set of three volumes was made available in Italian translation at the time when I still lived in Italy.

The reason why, rather than that fundamental and monumental three-volume work, I’ve chosen his Verdi in the Master Musicians series is that even though it was published more than 30 years ago, it remains a great introduction to who Verdi was. It is a book that is neatly divided into two parts, with about 150 pages on his life and slightly more on the music. The parallel discussions of life and work are organised, as one would expect, chronologically. Some would find this predictable, but I find this refreshing—I’m a fan of chronology; it’s a mid-life thing, perhaps!

This book has many glimpses of who Verdi was and much reliance on the correspondence and on the views that were expressed by critics and Verdi’s contemporaries and collaborators. There are also a few very well-chosen images in the insert in the middle showing anything from the portraits of Verdi’s key collaborators to set designs to portraits and photographs of Verdi himself. So, for those who are looking for an enjoyable and approachable read and who want to get a sense of his life and his work, and those who want to have access to a quick discussion of Rigoletto or Falstaff and other major operas, it’s a great place to go.

There are a few notated musical examples but those aren’t discussed at a technical level which would put off the general reader. On the contrary, they are there and allow people who are musically literate to go a little deeper and may feel encouraged to look at a whole score. Otherwise, you can just gloss over those passages and you won’t lose the thread of the discussion. Normally, if someone asks me where to start if they want to read about Verdi, this is the book that I recommend because it is very approachable and enjoyable, but also rigorous and detailed.  In a market where there are many monographs of the composer, of very uneven quality, this book remains a safe bet and a rewarding read.

And, as it shows, Verdi’s life is fascinating. He shows exceptional musical promise—being the paid organist at his local church at the age of nine—and yet is still rejected by the Milan Conservatoire when he is 18. That’s reassuring for those of us who have dealt with any rejection. 

That’s right. The conservatoire at Milan doesn’t have much of a reputation for talent-scouting. They rejected not only Verdi, but also Franz Liszt . . .

But Verdi’s life is indeed remarkable. When you go to Roncole, a small village which is about three miles from the town of Busseto, what you see is a big sign. Today, Roncole is now called “Roncole Verdi”; they have renamed the town. It’s as if they renamed “Stratford-upon-Avon” as “Stratford Shakespeare”. So, there is this big sign that quotes Verdi stating in a letter: “I was, I am, and always will be a peasant from Roncole.” There is the myth of Verdi as a peasant—of Verdi the man who belonged to the land, the man of humble origins, the great genius who developed and flourished against all odds. That myth is heavily exaggerated. Verdi did not come from a particularly poor background; his parents ran a business and were innkeepers in Roncole. If you want to look for a composer who was really poor at birth, then that’s Donizetti—but we rarely talk about that.

Verdi himself, later in life, liked to fuel the myth of being rough around the edges and very practical—someone who made it due to instinct and genius rather than access to superior education or anything like that. I think that Julian Budden and, more to the point, the book by Frank Walker, are very careful at telling us that his is a remarkable life, but that Verdi also had some extreme strokes of luck. Having a church with an organ directly in front of his birthplace—it’s maybe 30 steps from his birthplace to the church—was a stroke of luck, and there’s no shame in saying that. Also encountering patrons like Antonio Barezzi, who became his first father-in-law and generously supported him—that was another stroke of luck. Finding a teacher like Vincenzo Lavigna in Milan was a great stroke of luck too.

“The conservatoire at Milan rejected not only Verdi, but also Franz Liszt . . .”

It’s not even clear how exactly Verdi obtained his first contract for La Scala, but that was something that definitely worked in his favour. He made his way into the operatic world when Bellini died prematurely and Donizetti’s career also ended prematurely due to illness. There was only a brief overlap between the two of them. All of this meant that Verdi was the right man in the right place and the right time. There were quite a few factors that worked in his favour.

While we can talk about these benevolent coincidences, Verdi also experienced serious tragedy in his life.

Horrendous tragedy, absolutely. You are referring to the loss of his two children and his first wife in the space of a couple of years. This is a story that is repeated very often and is actually told inaccurately, speaking of myth and reality, which is such an important dualism when we talk about Verdi’s life and his operas. Verdi later wrote an autobiographical account which described the beginnings of his career more or less as follows:

I did Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio; it was successful, and so I was given a contract to write three further operas. The first of these was to be Un giorno di regno—an opera buffa—and then he goes on to say “and here grave misfortunes begin.” My first child falls ill and dies, and then my second child falls ill and dies, and then my wife falls ill and dies.

Now, all of this doesn’t actually happen after Oberto and in the period of a few weeks, as Verdi seems to indicate. The first child died in 1838, even before Verdi produced Oberto. The second child dies in 1839, and, finally, his wife dies in June 1840. At that point, they were only choosing the subject for the opera that would become Un giorno di regno. So, there’s the sense that Verdi plays a role in creating his own life story. We’re not talking about deliberate lies or mystifying the historical record—we’re talking about a certain perception that he came to have.

Still, one would never dream of diminishing the impact of this kind of tragedy, of the loss of two children and his wife. When Verdi tells the story of the third coffin that leaves his house, he states: “Ero solo. Solo”—I was alone, alone. The sense of loneliness that must have pervaded his life following her death must have been very powerful and probably had an impact on how he then became extremely self-sufficient and increasingly independent as a thinker.

It’s hard to give a representative discussion of his work here, given that Verdi composed almost 30 operas.  But it’s worth mentioning that three of his most popular works premiered very closely together in the 1850s.

Verdi is already firmly established and recognised internationally as the leading living opera composer, together with Rossini who had retired. But by 1850, Verdi is the guy that does Italian opera like nobody one else does. At that point, there are three operas that appear consecutively: Rigoletto in 1851, and Il trovatore and La Traviata appeared within less than three months of each other from January to March of 1853. Today we refer to these group of works collectively as the “popular trilogy.” But they are three remarkably different pieces in terms of subject matter, in terms of how the librettos are shaped, in terms of character depiction, and in terms of the musical materials they contain. If there is one common denominator between them beyond chronology, it’s just how different they are.

“Verdi’s melodies are perceived as being so infectious that they get out there and are instantly memorised—they are the perfect earworms”

Verdi’s music, in his view, has a unifying quality that works well with the subject matter. Rigoletto is set in a medieval court and was meant to be the story of the king of France, but the censors of Venice didn’t allow that and so Verdi had to change it to the Duke of Mantua. La traviata is set obviously in nineteenth-century Paris even though the censors in Venice required it to be set in the eighteenth century. Il trovatore is set in Spain and there are gypsies. These are all things that inform the way in which Verdi approaches the composition of each opera. If you know Verdi and you know these three operas but not by heart, it’s very easy to find your way around them. You cannot mistake the one for the other.

At this point, Verdi is very secure in striking a specific approach to the composition of a whole work. He does this without using the same devices that you would find in Wagner for example, such as recurring motifs that are woven through the fabric of a score and unify it. Verdi does this by adopting an overall tone, a character, a colour—a tinta, as he said himself. This is a generic and elusive concept, but there is this sense in Verdi that each opera is very individual. When Verdi discussed the subject matter of Rigoletto, he wrote something like: my notes may be beautiful or ugly, but they have a purpose. They work with a certain story. We cannot just change the story of Rigoletto and expect me to use the same music because it wouldn’t work.

Operas like Rigoletto, Trovatore, and Traviata have gone on to become immensely successful. They epitomise Verdi in so many ways and they epitomise opera in general. It’s emblematic that among the recognisable tunes that we mentioned at the beginning, several are from these operas. They are these iconic moments in opera. Do they become iconic because these operas are really successful or are these operas successful because they contain especially appealing and especially effective musical material? These questions are impossible to answer.

And, with an eye to Verdi’s late period, two of his greatest masterpieces—Otello and Falstaff—were written when Verdi was into his seventies. That is incredible.

Yes, it is fascinating. Verdi, in a way, retired after Aida, and there was no sense that he was going to write new operas. He remained deeply interested in what was happening in the world of opera, he continued to work on Don Carlos and its revisions, and he revised Simon Boccanegra, so his mind was still active. But no one would have expected in the mid-1880s that he would have come up with another opera, let alone two. It is truly extraordinary. The circumstances have to do with the encounter with librettist Boito and his relationship with Ricordi, his publisher. There was a bit of a conspiracy to smoke Verdi out of his hiding. The connection with Boito certainly proves crucial and that relationship was tested for the revisions for Simon Boccanegra. One thing leads to another, Verdi sort of ‘wakes up’ and prepares the four-act version of Don Carlo for La Scala. And then, little by little, plans materialise for Otello and then for Falstaff.

Next we have The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopaedia, edited by Roberta Marvin. It’s fairly obvious what it is, I suppose, but can you tell us why you’ve singled it out?

Of course, it’s a little bit of a cowardly choice on my point because I can’t choose more than five books and this is basically many books all in one place. One key feature of this encyclopaedia is that it’s recent—it dates from 2013, the second centennial of Verdi’s birth—and it includes the work of the leading Verdi scholars of our time. You have a multitude of highly authoritative voices which result in a remarkable stimulating read.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

I wouldn’t necessarily anticipate reading it cover to cover, although it can be rewarding to do that, but imagine reading the entries on the operas maybe one by one—maybe chronologically—what you find is writings by those individuals who have either edited the critical editions or are preparing the critical editions. So, for example, you have Helen Greenwald who talks about Attila with great acumen, and you have Linda Fairtile who will do the critical edition of Otello—she’s working on it right now and should will be big news coming out fairly soon about that project. So, you have people who have worked on and lived with individual operas for years. Each entry gives you the up to date scholarship in a precise and approachable form, but it also lets you hear the individual voices of these and many others scholars.

I love that Marvin has resisted the idea of giving every single entry on every single opera exactly the same shape. Provided that the basic information regarding the genesis of the work, the premiere, the shaping of the libretto, and the relation to the literary source are all there, each scholar has taken a different approach and that’s absolutely marvellous. As you get to know Verdi better, you also get to know the people who have worked on him.

At the same time, the entries on the individual operas do not begin to define the Cambridge Verdi Encyclopaedia. There is terminology like: what is a cabaletta? Or parola scenica? Who are the singers, librettists, and impresarios and what is their story beyond their collaboration with Verdi? What do we know about Verdi’s compositional process? How did a Verdi opera get written, so to speak? What is a skeleton score?

All of these things are explored concisely and yet vividly. I just like how accurate and approachable everything is. Also, at the end of each entry, you will very often find bibliographical references so that you know where to go when you want to find out more. And at the end there are excellent appendices providing a chronology of Verdi’s life, a list of works, a great list of operatic roles, and of course a thorough bibliography.

Across the board, it’s very interesting about Verdi’s use of literary sources in collaboration with his librettists. Rigoletto, after all, is based on a play by Victor Hugo. He based operas on works by Schiller, Voltaire, and we have three operas based on Shakespeare: Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff—he also flirted with the idea of doing a King Lear opera. This appreciation of Shakespeare was fairly unusual for a 19th century Italian.

Yes, it certainly was remarkable how he came to read and appreciate Shakespeare. His interest in Shakespeare is one of the defining aspects of Verdi’s career although, of course, he had other dramatists that he was fond of and to whom he returned more than once, such as Friedrich Schiller and Victor Hugo. But Shakespeare is certainly a very special case. The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopaedia gives us insights into Verdi’s literary tastes. Whenever there is a literary source that we know about, whether it’s Shakespeare or Duval is based, you can go to the Encyclopaedia and start reading about that.

Let’s look at your next choice of book, The Man Verdi by Frank Walker. Can you tell me about this one?

Frank Walker is a classic in Verdi scholarship. It appeared in 1962 and then was reprinted recently by the University of Chicago Press—something I was delighted about and sanctions the enduring importance of this book.

Let’s look at the story of Verdi bibliography for a brief moment. Verdi is a very famous man who lives a very long life. Now, famous people who live long lives have biographies published whilst they are still alive. During Verdi’s lifetime, there were analytical studies of his operas, such as the one by Abramo Basevi which has been translated into English recently and edited magnificently by Stefano Castelvecchi. And there was also the biography by Arthur Pougin. But there is also all the myth-making.

Verdi dies in 1901, and within 12 years of his death, there are celebrations of the 100th anniversary of his birth. Then in 1951, there are celebrations of the 50th anniversary of his death. All of these moments of monumentalisation and enshrining are characterised by a certain about of myth-making. There are ways of writing biography, of talking about art in general and about music in particular, that inform those specific moments in Verdi scholarship. So, there is a great deal of “oh yes, Verdi was a peasant”, “oh yes, Verdi was a patriot”, “oh yes, ‘Va, pensiero’ is the song of the Italians” without problematising and looking at the historical record.

Frank Walker comes along and writes the book that we—even though I wasn’t born yet!—had been waiting for at that point. He writes an in-depth biographical study which stands out because it draws to an unprecedented extent on archival research and primary sources. Walker looks at the letters, he looks at the historical record, and he uses all that to draw a picture that is detailed, compelling, coherent, and reliable like few other biographical studies have managed to do either before or, frankly, since. This is a really great place to go.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Those of us who are passionate about Verdi and who love the story of his life now have access to thousands upon thousands of letters that are published in admirable critical editions. We have the Verdi and Boito correspondence and a lot of the Verdi and Ricordi correspondence, for example, and many other volumes of correspondence published by the Istituto Nazionale di Studi Verdiani in Parma, Italy. They offer an extraordinary amount of detail that wasn’t available even to Walker. But you can go to Walker and read through it, or just focus on specific chapters, and what you get is the twofold perspective on Verdi’s life and people who were important to him.

What I find fascinating about Walker and reading him is that he gives an acknowledgment and tribute to a great artist, but it is also an acknowledgment and tribute to those who were close with him—who collaborated with him, who helped to make the man Verdi. Sure, we can call him a genius, but this book is about Verdi the man. I’m tempted to say there is a sociological component. You read about Verdi’s early life and immediately there is this area that Walker recognises as being problematic. He sifts through the documents and separates myth and reality for the first time—how was Verdi really trained? What sort of professional opportunities did he have? Then, when you come to the beginning of his career, the book explores the relationship between the young composer at the outset of his career and the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, as well as two singers including Giuseppina Strepponi. Then you go on and encounter a figure like Emanuele Muzio who was Verdi’s student, as well as his friend and collaborator.

As you go on even further, you get to what is perhaps my favourite part of the book, which is truly seminal. This is the part that talks about Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi was, as we have said, a key singer in Verdi’s early career, but is remembered for the great love that developed in 1847. Verdi travels through Paris to go to London, and on the way back he stops in Paris again and produces Jérusalem for the Academie Royale de Musique (the so-called Opéra), it is there and then that his friendship with Strepponi becomes a fully-fledged relationship that will last a lifetime. This talks about Verdi’s love of Strepponi, but what’s really worthwhile and timely when we think about feminist approaches, here we have a book that doesn’t theorise, but that fully recognises how influential Strepponi was on Verdi.

For example, Strepponi may have been pivotal in identifying the subject of Il Trovatore, we don’t know and we will probably never know for sure. She was not only a prominent singer who had retired but she was a woman of great culture—she was fluent in French as well as Italian, and her French was certainly better than Verdi’s. She could also read and write in English which was not common at all at the time. So, she had her own interests and literary tastes. The extent to which she contributed to Verdi’s development is merely touched upon here, but through the letters from Strepponi that are contained in this book, there is a sense of just how extraordinary this person was and how, really, Verdi wasn’t alone.

“Here we have a book that doesn’t theorise, but that fully recognises how influential Giuseppina Strepponi was on Verdi”

We have the monuments, the streets, the piazzas, the portraits, and the operas themselves, but opera is such a collaborative artform to begin with and for Verdi, then, we also have Strepponi’s presence, whose importance cannot be overestimated. When the Strepponi correspondence is published in its entirety in an accurate edition then we will be closer to paying her full justice. But for someone like Walker to come along in the 1960s and bring this woman, this artist, to the fore in Verdi bibliography, that’s really pathbreaking and is, in itself, a very good reason to read this book.

As we’ve said, separating myth from reality with Verdi seems to be the driving thrust of Walker’s book. Scholars are particularly divided about Verdi’s influence on the Risorgimento—the political struggle for Italian unification. Can you tell us about that?

Absolutely. For a long time, Verdi was described as one of the men who made Italy—together with the likes of Mazzini, Cavour, and Garibaldi. Verdi was perceived as the artist who had expressed the struggle for Italian liberation and unification with the music and stories of his operas. The myth was formed to a considerable extent after the unification of Italy and around the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, which was taken to be a metaphor for the state of the Italian people in the early 1840s. As soon as the Kingdom of Italy was formed, Italy’s first prime minister Cavour called Verdi to the first Italian parliament and he was part of the process of not only making Italy but making Italians as a great role model. The historical record was manipulated in such a way as, for example, to argue that the chorus “Va, pensiero” was encored in Milan in 1842; thanks to the work of Roger Parker, we now know that it wasn’t.

“The myth was formed to a considerable extent after the unification of Italy and around the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco

Towards the end of the twentieth century, in the 1990s, a lot of work was done that took a revisionist approach to the question of Verdi and the Risorgimento. The line of reasoning was that the historical record was lacking. Although one can read the plot of the operas metaphorically, there is only scant evidence that audiences or Verdi’s contemporaries did so. There’s little, especially up to 1848, to show that Verdi or his librettists intended for these works to be political—to be expressions of current tensions and agitations relating to aspirations that led to the formation of Italy as a unified and independent nation.

My take is that certain things were definitely exaggerated, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the revisionists who have made us think carefully about the historical record. I do resist, however, the approach of looking primarily for evidence of audience response. That sort of evidence is elusive by nature and in a world where written expression was closely monitored and public behaviour including in theatres was very carefully regulated, it is very difficult to even hypothesise a situation where there would be a big uprising during an opera performance—where people would be crying out loud “Viva L’Italia” or anything like that.

What is interesting to me is to see how the censors position themselves in regard to Verdi’s operas. Mind you, we’re not just talking about Verdi. One of the points that needs to be made is that while we’ve been talking about the Risorgimento and Verdi, I’m more interested in talking about opera and the Risorgimento. I’m interested in seeing what the censors do and what their responses can be, not just to operas like Nabucco or Attila or Giovanna d’Arco—operas that tell the story of subjugation of one people by another. Opera was a dominant form of entertainment, and so you could not ban opera altogether. The show must go on, so to speak, and the authorities aimed to keep a certain balance and preserve a certain social order of power.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Opera was part of what Italian historian Alberto Banti has called “the morphology of national discourse”. We have notions of liberty and patria, of course, but these are not the most important. We have notions of honour, faith, and oaths, of making an oath or investing one’s honour in the pursuit of a cause. There’s also religion as a unifying element of the people. These are all things that come up in the operas, and censors exercised a measure of control over these themes. I have personally argued, for example, that the censoring of Giovanna d’Arco—which contains many references to the Virgin Mary—in Milan (the words of several passages were changed) has to do not so much with referring to the Virgin Mary in general terms, so it’s not a problem of religious propriety, but rather that the religious imagery seems to advocate that the Virgin Mary will support those who fight for freedom.

“Opera was a dominant form of entertainment, and so you could not ban opera altogether. Authorities aimed to keep a certain balance and preserving a certain social order of power”

These are things that are not about the Risorgimento; Verdi is not necessarily making statements with regard to a national cause. Rather, opera is of the Risorgimento; it is part of a culture where the destiny of Italy was very much a concern. These things are difficult to pin down with accuracy and with precision—and so we need to keep talking about them. Personally, I’m not happy with the 20th-century traditionist approach, with the many inaccuracies that are highlighted in Roger Parker’s work and the work of others, but I’m also not happy with the radical revisionism where they say “we have no evidence, therefore it’s not true.” No. If we don’t have evidence, then we keep looking for it (for instance, a young American scholar, Douglas Ipson, is doing fascinating work on the reception of Verdi’s operas before 1848).

It’s very important to separate myth from reality, but in so doing we must be careful not to be sceptical and dismissive about everything. Myth is often built on certain foundations, and we just need to understand what those foundations are.

Next on the list is The Story of Giuseppe Verdi by Gabriele Baldini. This covers from his first opera Oberto up until Un Ballo in Maschera.

It’s not a full survey, sadly, since Baldini was still working on this project when he died. But it was sufficiently advanced that, with some editorial work, it was published posthumously in Italian in 1970. The English edition was translated by Roger Parker and that involved further bits of editing to bring the factual record up to speed.

What I love about this book is that it’s written without any technical language. Again, when I chose these five books—leaving out many others, with regret—I felt that I should try to talk about books that a broad readership could approach. Precisely because Verdi is so popular and there is so much interest in him, I wanted to have books where we can learn about him and where we can be excited about his life, his music, and his theatre, without getting too deep into technical discussions.

The wonderful thing about Baldini is that this is a book that is rooted in literary criticism as much as it is in a deep understanding of what opera is. At its heart is not a discussion of Verdi as a musician, but a discussion of Verdi as a musical dramatist: what the music actually does to articulate the stories, characters, and dramatic situations that make Verdi’s operas so compelling. This is very much a personal take by a man of great culture. There are opinions that I disagree with, but it really leads us to think about Verdi’s music, and about what happens when we experience a Verdi opera, especially in the theatre. There is this sense of opera as “event” that comes across very vividly in this read.

The book seems provocative in its appraisal of Verdi’s operas. He’s quite dismissive of Otello, for example, writing that Macbeth “is much more vigorous and powerful than Otello, which was watered down by Boito’s preciosity.”

One wonders what he would have said about Otello had he come to write a full chapter of it. He’s a bit critical of La Traviata as well, describing it as “uneven”. The point he’s getting at, I suppose, is that Rigoletto and Trovatore are more unified as scores and that La Traviata is much more diverse. I find that to be a strength of Traviata, personally—not to say that it’s superior to the other operas, but it’s very distinctive. One thing that I remember is where Baldini talks about Alfredo’s aria at the beginning of Act II of Traviata and he says that this tenor role is not nearly as well-designed or as well-developed as the Duke in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore, which is true. The protagonist of La Traviata is obviously Violetta. He writes that the cabaletta, “O mio rimorso, o infamia,” is often cut and that “one can see why”.

In his view, essentially, it’s a wonderful piece of music but it doesn’t really fit in with the opera, the story, or the character, and Verdi didn’t know what to do dramatically at that point, other than, I suppose, complete the number with a closing cabaletta, in line with the formal conventions we discussed previously. What this tells us is that Baldini, along with many others, feels the need for the action to move forward there.

The centre-piece of the entire opera is arguably the duet between Violetta and Germont, and while we wait for that to unfold, here we are with Alfredo, who sings a rather dull aria—dull not because of the music, which is fantastic, but because dramatically nothing happens. And then he discovers that Violetta is selling her property, her belongings, to support their livelihoods in the countryside. He’s outraged, but instead of running off immediately, he sings a cabaletta. I can see Baldini’s point, but I also think that that the cabaletta is one of those moments where emotional intensity takes over and it becomes more important than dramatic intensity or progression. The two concepts are related but different. I like Alfredo’s cabaletta and whenever I have the chance to do so, I insist that it be sung in its entirety—which is to say that it must be stated twice.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Again, Baldini is a highly individual author who comes to Verdi with a really unique and perceptive approach. Whenever he says something that is maybe not necessarily provocative but certainly thought-provoking, then we sit down and interrogate it. What I like about Baldini is that you read it and you don’t forget it. It is a memorable piece of writing. Precisely because it’s so personal and such a wealth of strong opinion, it’s a great complement to the biographical approach of Walker. Baldini is in a different league; it’s a critical study and it gives us the opportunity to think about the operas themselves and to develop our own ideas as a result of reading it.

Your final book is Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera by Philip Gossett. This focuses on those bel canto composers we spoke about at the beginning, such as Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, but also Verdi. What do we learn about Verdi from it?

It is my last book, but it could very well be the first. It’s not the first book you would go to in order to read about Verdi, but before reading about Verdi we should read about 19th-century Italian opera. Divas and Scholars is an absolutely unique book; it is the towering achievement of arguably the most pioneering and influential scholar of 19th-century Italian opera who ever lived. It is a book that talks about opera first of all with a level of passion and energy that I found absolutely captivating, and it is researched with greater breadth and depth than any other publication in the field. I’m partial, admittedly, because I knew Philip well—he was one of my principal mentors and a dear friend, and I serve as General Editor for the Verdi critical edition, which he founded and ran himself for many years.

But there is something about the way in which he writes that is so vivid and energetic and powerful; it nails you to the chair in a way that the other books perhaps don’t. Some authors like Budden will capture you more for their grace and charm; Walker is unique for the abundance of documentary evidence; Baldini has the strong opinions; Gossett bursts with energy and passion, and is absolutely infectious.

The book takes a very specific approach and it’s important to stress the full title. There is a great deal in it that discusses “texts,” manuscript and printed music scores, librettos as objects and written texts, and so on. But the central idea is that opera comes to life in performance and that research, knowledge, understanding, and editions can guide and enhance our appreciation of it. The idea that opera is an event has been theorised, sometimes in very complex ways—I’m no fan of over-theorisation—but what Gossett does is tell us how people have gone about performing Italian opera, the problems and challenges they have faced, different traditions and approaches, and how we can go about keeping Italian opera alive, or bringing it to new life in terms of expanding the repertoire we perform today or igniting new energy into familiar works in the light of current research.

Divas and Scholars moves seamlessly from past to present, from the score to the stage, talking about Gossett’s first-hand experience working with some of the most prominent singers from the late 20th- and early 21st-century singers up until 2006 when the book was published. It’s really an extraordinarily broad read, because it tells us about the composers and their work; it tells us about the scores through which their work has arrived at us (and through which we sometimes misunderstand aspects of the operas); it talks about the work that scholars have to do in order to bring a certain level of probity to a repertoire that is as popular as it is misconceived. It also talks about the great conductors who might have had misguided assumptions about this repertoire—for instance, the habit of cutting portions of operas (a topic that we’ve already touched on with Alfredo’s cabaletta).

But this is a book that, unlike the others we’ve discussed today, is about opera as a living practice, and how that practice thrives or can thrive on the basis of increased, deeper knowledge of how the composers worked, the cultural context in which they operated, the restrictions and pressures to which they were subjected, the challenges performers have to face, and so forth. It’s a great place to start.

Even though it’s not a book specifically a book on Verdi, it gives the broader picture in terms of understanding Italian opera and in terms of placing Verdi in context. We’ve come full circle: we started by talking about myth and reality and the extraordinary life that Verdi had, and of Verdi as the peasant from Roncole. Gossett, in a way, does the same kind of work that Walker does, but on a completely different front, at a different level. He’s reminding us that Verdi is not alone and that the culture of opera is collaborative and complex. There are so many individuals and factors that contribute towards making Italian opera not only in the 19th century, but also today. One thing is clear to me: if you read Divas and Scholars, you’ll probably want to go to the opera!

Finally, for the reader who’s curious about opera but hasn’t ever seen one, which Verdi opera would you suggest?

Honestly, whichever! I don’t think that you can go wrong. The question that you are asking presupposes that there are operas that are not approachable, and I don’t think that’s true. There are some that are stranger than others and that are performed less frequently than others. But the secret is to arrive at a performance having done a little bit of preparation, knowing the plot and understanding a little bit of how an opera by Verdi works. Nowadays, there is the question of production, when stage directors take a heavy-handed approach to the texts they stage, changing their location, the time of the action, but also twisting or layering the plot in ways that can be very challenging for the opera-goer to decode.

If I have to choose, then I become subjective and even sentimental. Aida was my first opera so, of course, I think that it’s great. There is spectacle, there are the big choruses, and there are bits of ballet (depending on the production). It has the loud, rousing stuff but also extraordinary intimate scenes, it has exoticism, it has political themes, so that’s a great place to start.

It might be a little bit overwhelming and it’s on the long side, so if you want something more concise and dramatic to the core, then maybe Rigoletto is your opera. If you want something more sentimental and thoroughly heart-rending, then La Traviata is your opera. But if you’re looking for theatre and psychological depth and are willing to embrace the grand opéra experience—in the French sense of the term—then maybe Don Carlos. That’s another fabulous piece.

If you want to have fun, Falstaff is incredible. If you want to have bel canto and incredible vocal virtuosity, then an early Verdi opera might be very satisfying. One that I find extremely compelling and is not done nearly enough is I Lombardi alla prima Crociata. I Lombardi tells the story of interreligious love between a Christian woman and a Muslim man, although the man converts to Christianity before dying. How powerful can that be nowadays? How relevant is that to present-day concerns? Opera is theatre and one needs to think about the stories as much as one thinks about the music, there’s no question about that. I would encourage any reader to take the plunge and just go to the opera; go at least twice, and it is likely that, by default, one of the operas you land upon is going to be by Verdi; just see where things go from there.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

February 28, 2020

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Francesco Izzo

Francesco Izzo

Professor Francesco Izzo is a Professor of Music at the University of Southampton. He is Co-Director of the American Institute for Verdi Studies and general editor of the critical edition of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi. He is frequently invited as a speaker, contributor of program notes, and consultant at opera houses, festivals, and media outlets, including the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, the Welsh National Opera, and the BBC.

Francesco Izzo

Francesco Izzo

Professor Francesco Izzo is a Professor of Music at the University of Southampton. He is Co-Director of the American Institute for Verdi Studies and general editor of the critical edition of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi. He is frequently invited as a speaker, contributor of program notes, and consultant at opera houses, festivals, and media outlets, including the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, the Welsh National Opera, and the BBC.