A journey to Verdi country in Italy

When Verdi lay dying in the Grand Hotel in Milan, the people of the city put straw down on the cobbles in front of the window so that he would not be disturbed by the clatter of horses’ hoofs. Silence was the only gift that they could give to the innkeeper’s son from the Po plain who had filled their world with such beautiful sound.

Verdi died on 27 January 1901. The surviving giant of 19th century opera (Richard Wagner had died 17 years earlier) set a hesitant foot into the tumultuous century that was to follow, then left us forever.Giuseppe Verdi had already seen enough upheaval for several lifetimes. The little hamlet of Le Roncole, an hour’s drive from Parma, where he was born in 1813 was then part of the French Empire. His birth certificate records the arrival in French of "un enfant du sexe masculin." The tuneful and musically unsophisticated operas of his youth carried enough rousing choruses of oppressed masses for the Unification movement to use his initials as a cry for the scattered kingdoms of the Italian Peninsula to unite under one king: V -ictor Emmanuel Re D’Italia. By the time he died Italy was a prosperous nation that was considered to be one of the six great powers of the world (in those days an exclusively European concept that did not include America or Japan.) In Verdi’s own world, the theatre, with which he had such a turbulent love-hate relationship, La Scala had been lit by candles when he first arrived in 1839. By 1851 it was lit with oil, then gas and in 1893, when the 80 year old composer’s Falstaff was premiered, the theatre was entirely run on electricity.

And somewhere in the middle of his long life when Aida was in production in 1872 and the Franco-Prussian war caused the costumes and decor to be blocked in Paris, French librettist, Camille du Locle sent messages of progress to Verdi by hot air balloon. The wise and wily, taciturn farmer that Verdi remained would have viewed this rush of technological progress with a wary eye. He had little time for any of life’s trimmings, preferring to wander alone down the lane of Lombardy poplars on his estate at St Agata to survey the fields of beetroot and potatoes. Irritated by the sycophancy and overblown emotion of the operatic world, he had withdrawn to his farm decades earlier, turning his back on a fame so great that Czar Alexander II, autocrat of all the Russias had once remarked to him: "Ah, Verdi, you are more powerful than I!" With, in the words of an American biographer, "a talent so profuse it couldn’t stop to explain," Verdi had little hope of being left in peace to peruse his catalogues of agricultural machinery. The musical journey from an early opera like Nabucco to his valedictory Falstaff is so long and covers such a vast and varied landscape that it becomes apparent that this gloomy, suspicious man just could not stop the music inside him from growing and evolving . At the end of his 54 year long career, Verdi’s music would take us to places that no-one could have imagined upon hearing those first bouncy, barrel-organ tunes that he brought from the brass bands of Bussetto. Although Bussetto was virtually his home town (Le Roncole is little more than a crossroads in the flat farmland) Verdi was frequently at odds with the place just as he was frequently at odds with La Scala and the Opera in Paris. Geniuses rarely know much serenity and Verdi’s life for many years was one of restless conflict with his environment. In Bussetto, the local grocer, Antonio Barezzi had championed his young talent and provided financial support. Verdi was even briefly and happily married to Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita but would lose her and their two children to illness. Many years later, however, he managed to upset the peaceful, provincial town when he brought his mistress, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, to live there. The ensuing gossip and prejudice may have inspired "La Traviata" but it left Verdi angry enough with the locals to refuse to support their plan to build a theatre in his honour. He described it as "useless" and to this day, his statue sits with its back turned to the Teatro Verdi.

He was in conflict with the Conservatoire in Milan for refusing him entry in his youth. He would also remain at loggerheads for many years with the city’s principal opera house, La Scala.. Verdi was critical of the orchestra and chorus and scornful of La Scala’s claim to be in Milanese dialect "el prim teater del mund" - the first theatre of the world. He was heard to mutter that Vienna deserved that title. Verdi stayed in conflict with the Opera in Paris for many years even though he lived for a time in the French capital, on the Place des Victoires where he first set up house with Giuseppina Strepponi in 1847. (Twelve years later she would become and remain his wife for 38 years.) He was scornful of as he called it where the Jockey Club could hold sway and demand from a composer of his stature, a ballet inserted into the opera during which their members would have time to settle into their seats after supper.

Verdi travelled to London for I Masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre. He hated the smoke and the fog but loved the energy and excitement of what he called "A magnificent town." He would journey to St Petersburg for the premiere of La Forza del Destino. He and Giuseppina equipped themselves with the obligatory fur hats and coats and had the obligatory photos taken of themselves wearing those hats and coasts and riding in a troika. But when the prospect of cabbage soup loomed, Giuseppina packed the ingredients to ensure that the maestro would be able to get a decent risotto.Eventually, however, he would be drawn back to the flat, misty Italian heartland of his birth where he settled in his villa and farm at St Agata, just a few miles outside Bussetto. There, in dark, overstuffed Victorian rooms, he breathed life into Aida, Don Carlos, Otello and Falstaff. He buried his dog Lulu in the grounds and to this day those grounds and those rooms remain as Verdi left them. Theatres throughout Italy and the rest of the world will be celebrating the long life of the composer in 2001 but a visitor who wants to undertake a Verdi pilgrimage in his centenary year would do well to start in this peaceful region. The upstairs room where Verdi was born in the little inn at Le Roncole Verdi , can be visited in an afternoon along with the church across the road where he learned to play the organ.

Bussetto, with its fine porticoed main street, has preserved the home of Verdi’s patron, Antonio Barezzi. Just across the way are the apartments where the unmarried Verdi and Giuseppina so shocked the locals by living together. Along the street is the church to which an unbelieving Verdi would accompany his fervent Catholic Giuseppina each Sunday, taking her just as far as the door before turning around to go home. Across from the church on the main square just next to the Teatro Verdi, legendary tenor and local resident, Carlo Bergonzi provides fine regional cuisine in his hotel "I Due Foscari."

But it is out at the villa at Saint Agata where the old composer spent his final years that I have always felt his presence most strongly. On my first visit almost fifteen years ago, I looked into the mirror in his bedroom and realized with a chill that for decades the maestro’s greying hair and beard and wise blue eyes had been reflected in that same glass. The collected works of his beloved Shakespeare are still on the bookshelf next to his bed where he left them, as is a life of Beethoven and notes that he wrote to himself. Just occasionally Verdi would venture out to local events. He once tried to attend a fiesta in nearby Zibello but when his arrival was cheered by the locals, he took umbrage, turned around and went home. This may have been his loss for since 1897, the inn of La Buca in Zibello has been serving excellent local culatello hams, porcini and sweet pasta deserts. It has always been run by women, the grandmothers, mothers and daughters of the same family."Who needs useless men?" demanded Signora Miriam last time I ate there.

In Saint Agata they have reproduced the room where Verdi died in the Grand Hotel et de Milan. The original room has also been preserved in the Grand Hotel but before visiting Verdi locations in Milan, it is worth making the hour long drive to the city of Parma, home of Italy’s most notoriously critical opera audience.Although there are stories of inadequate tenors being chased to the train station by the audience at the Regio theatre in Parma, the city is a gentle, peaceful place where the most a non-operatic visitor risks is being knocked down by one of the hundred bicycles that ply the pedestrianized historical centre or succumbing to a surfeit of the butter and cheese that dominate the local cuisine. For all his ambiguous loyalty to his home province, Verdi died in Milan, where one surprising last work was nearing completion. Whereas his rival, Richard Wagner had busied himself building a shrine to his own music in Bayreuth, Verdi chose to found a rest home for retired musicians: Casa Verdi, "most beautiful work" he would call the home, leaving it the royalties from his operas. In his will, he asks to be buried there but the home was not quite finished when he died. This delay gave the people of Milan a way around his other demand to be buried silently at dawn. They respected that wish but when, a month later, his coffin was moved to a chapel in the home, an excuse was provided for the massive show of feeling that the people had been denied. Toscanini conducted the Orchestra and chorus of La Scala, members of the royal family accompanied the funeral cortege. In those distant days before, radio and television, old photos show crowds on the Milan streets that outnumber those that bid farewell to Princess Diana almost a century later in London. Upon the death of his friend Carlo Tenca, Verdi managed to write to Tenca’s mistress, his dear friend, Clarina Maffei the most depressing letter of condolence: "I think that life is a stupid thing, futile even. What do we do? What have we done? What will we do? The answer is humiliating and very depressing: NOTHING!"

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