The venerated Verdi, fine and fallible

January 27, 1994|By James Roos | James Roos,Knight-Ridder News Service

Since his death at 87 in 1901, Giuseppe Verdi has been portrayed as a kind of Abraham Lincoln of music: a wise, gruff yet humane man of humble origins who cared deeply about four things: music, people, farming and his beloved country.

In countless biographies, Verdi venerators have described the Italian composer as a peasant from Busseto, a small town near Parma, who rivaled Wagner as the king of 19th-century opera and who rallied his countrymen in uniting Italy.

He wrote 30 operas, including masterworks such as "La Traviata," "Rigoletto" and "Aida." But never has he been revealed in all his fallibility as in this new biography.

The basic facts of Verdi's life are no secret: He was the son of poor parents and, notwithstanding his talent, was denied admission to the Milan Conservatory. Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy Bussetan, acted as a second father to him, sponsoring Verdi's private studies in Milan. Barezzi's daughter, Margherita, married the composer in 1836, but she died four years later, as did their two small children.

With "Nabucco," composed while he was still grieving for his family, Verdi earned not only fame but also the love and esteem of fellow Italians, who took up the chorus "Va, pensiero" as a hymn of consolation and hope for their future nation.

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz relates Verdi's story with a richness of detail, fresh fact and colorful anecdote unequaled even by such distinguished Verdi biographers as Frank Walker, George Martin and William Weaver. She tackles the questionable aspects of Verdi's life by researching them to the bone.

There is, for example, his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi, a star soprano who lived for years with Verdi at his country estate (Sant' Agata near Busseto) and became his wife. Verdi loved her deeply, although Strepponi had borne several children out of wedlock, depositing them, one after the other, in foundling homes. Ms. Phillips-Matz has tracked down parish records throughout Italy detailing their fate. (There is no clear evidence she had any children with Verdi.)

Verdi's mid-life infatuation with the soprano Teresa Stolz created a menage a trois in the household that most biographers explain away as mere friendship, but Ms. Phillips-Matz makes a persuasive case that Verdi and Stolz had an affair. She has traced what appears to have been a rendezvous between them at a Cremona hotel, and she uses Strepponi's letters and the firsthand accounts of "Luigi Grandini, who had worked at Verdi's side as a stone mason's helper," to document the strife between husband and wife.

Grandini is one of dozens of Verdi workers and Sant' Agata descendants whom the 67-year-old author has met in 45 years of Verdi research, during which she co-founded the American Institute of Verdi Studies at New York University. Beginning in the early 1950s, Ms. Phillips-Matz began visiting Verdi sites and still spends her summers in the composer's hometown.

Her research is admirable. Verdi's philanthropies have never been so clearly documented. Ms. Phillips-Matz calculates he arranged for the distribution of a $23 million estate at his death. He designated its bulk for a retirement home for musicians in Milan, a hospital that still operates at Villanova, near his home, plus day-care centers and hospitals in other Italian towns and cities.

Numerous biographies have made Verdi out to be a gentleman farmer and hunter, but here you find him taking off months at a time to tramp through his fields and join his workers in laying bricks and irrigating land.

Ms. Phillips-Matz's prose is extremely lucid, if not stylish, and her writing is vivid enough to keep you riveted. Strange, though, that Oxford University Press did such a poor job of proof-reading. There are dozens of misprints.

But, more important, there are many fascinating moments, as when the "bear of Busseto" is depicted mellowing in old age.

On a cold October day, the widower Verdi sat and watched his workers chop down one of the giant magnolia trees in front of his house. "I planted that magnolia with my own hands," he told a visitor, and "now it is in the way and smells too much."

The composer watched until the tree came down. Not long afterward, Verdi himself was felled by a stroke in Milan, and as he lay dying, the city muted its noisy streets with straw. Today he rests beneath frescoed walls of quiet mourning in the Milanese retirement home for musicians that he built.

The inscription on the tomb is Gabriele D'Annunzio's: "He wept and loved for all."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Verdi"

Author: Mary Jane Phillips-Matz

Publisher: Oxford University

Length, price: 941 pages, $45

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