Saturday, October 19, 2019

Book Review: The Real Traviata

The Real Traviata
Giuseppina Strepponi’s father was an organist and a minor opera composer. As she developed, he quickly realised that she was an excellent soprano and encouraged her to study and perform. In 1834 she was a sensation at Milan’s La Scala opera house in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love.
During the next few years, she performed in a wide-ranging repertoire and, through a liaison with a popular tenor of the day, had three children. The first, of these was a son Camillo, whom I will mention again later in this review. Born in 1838, he, like the others she discretely arranged to be adopted.
Soon after the third of these children went to adoption, she used her influence to gain access to Milan’s La Scala opera house. His name was Giuseppe Verdi, and he soon became known as the greatest Italian composer of his age. In 1842, she had a key role – Abigaille – in the creation of “Nabucco,” one of his first operas. It was a great success, with 57 successive performances.
As she travelled throughout Europe singing the role, she gave a boost to Verdi’s career, helping him quickly become renowned. She was extraordinarily intelligent and proves a wonderful, talented writer in the many letters included in the book. She guided Verdi’s career and helped in translating texts from Spanish, French and could even help a bit when they had to deal with the German theatres.
But Giuseppina took on too many great soprano roles. In 1846, barely 30 years old, her voice was failing and she had to give up her career. By then, however, she and Verdi were in love. She moved to Paris as a teacher and Verdi joined her the following year. From then on, their lives were linked. They settled in his home in Venice in 1851 and married in 1859.
Giuseppina Strepponi was the most famous singer of her day when Giuseppe Verdi, then an unknown composer, wanted her to perform his work. They became lovers and eventually married. Given her background as a “fallen woman” – the Italian expression is “la traviata” – their story literally became the stuff of grand opera.
Based on original research, documents and letters which have remained hidden for almost a century, this biography tells the story of the brief period in which she was the greatest soprano of her day. She was a singer, an actress and the mistress of the most powerful impresario of the time in a period when composers turned out opera as people make films today. She gave it all up, and abandoned her three illegitimate children to become Verdi’s mistress and then his wife.
Earlier on I mentioned Giusippina’s son, Camillo. A young doctor doing his apprenticeship, at age 25 he died of cholera, which is highly contagious. This means his body was almost certainly shoveled quickly into the ground. Servadio writes, “the death certificate gives only the Christian name of the father, and the mother’s name appears as Giuseppa: her first child was allowed to die like a bastard without a history. [In Giuseppina’s] notebook there is not a single line word or word that testifies to a mother’s grief” (pp. 193-194). The point, of course, is that as Verdi’s wife she could not let her grief besmirch his reputation.
The book provides a look at the lives of Giuseppina and Verdi within the context of the Risorgimento – an ideological and cultural movement that aroused the national consciousness of the Italian people and ultimately freed the Mediterranean boot from foreign domination and united them politically.
Giuseppi Verdi was Italy’s outstanding opera composer. His works were often based on libretti expressing deep compassion for the misfits of the world: the lame, the morally corrupt, and the socially damned. Gaia Servadio’s book is primarily about Giuseppina Strepponi, but through many pages she is upstaged by her latter-day companion and husband, Verdi.
The opening chapters describe the life of women in the theatre in those days. Often they were used as sex objects by impresarios, theatre managers, composers and others who helped create and rule the stage.
She often sat at his side when he composed at the piano, declaring what was good and what might be better expressed. She was Verdi’s companion through much of her early years as a soprano, and after 19 years became his wife, a position she didn’t dare dream of but was thrilled to receive. She was a beautiful woman, as many of the portraits of the period show. She was only two years younger than Verdi.
As she began to gain weight and lose her beauty, Verdi began an affair with a Bohemian soprano, Teresa Stolz. This was a lasting affair, and Stolz became the principle soprano in La Scala’s inaugural performances of Verdi operas from 1865 onward. As you can imagine, was not happy with the ménage à trois Verdi created. The threesome lived together at Verdi’s home in Venice, and had adjoining apartments at his digs in Milan and Genoa.
In most of the biographies of Giuseppe Verdi, Giuseppina Strepponi stands discretely off-stage after her major influence on his break-out success with the opera Nabucco. In Ms. Servadio’s detailed and sympathetic account, she is a compelling character in her own right. This book reveals the world of Italian opera as being filled with scandal, intrigue, rivalries, casting couches, great triumphs, bitter disappointments and vocal breakdowns. It also describes the work of perhaps the greatest Romantic Era composer of opera.
La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady with the Camellias) is a novel by the younger Alexandre Dumas. Many aspects of her life paralleled the story of the “Lady of the Camellias.” That book was the origin of one of Verdi’s greatest operas, and one in which Giuseppina starred. Verdi titled the opera La Traviata – in translation, “the fallen woman.” Giuseppina Strepponi-Verdi, his wife, was The Real Traviata – the title of the book.
In conclusion, a few thoughts: I have read four other biographies of Verdi, all of them written by men. They all focus on Verdi’s life and his compositional genius. By contrast, this book was written by a woman about his wife and two of his mistresses – especially his second wife, Giuseppina.

It seems to me that Servadio could have given the story better balance by giving more focus to Verdi’s first wife and children, and the tragedy that accompanied them. Rather horribly, while he was on his second opera commission – writing the comedy A One-Day Reign –his daughter Virginia, then his son Icilio, and finally his wife Margherita died. Margherita was 27 years old at time of death – the same age as Verdi himself.

Verdi did not write another comedy until Falstaff in 1893, when he was 87 years old. Falstaff was his last opera and the third he based on the works of Shakespeare. In summary, this book gives yet another perspective on Verdi and his later years. The author shows another side of Verdi by telling her story through the voice of his second wife – a gifted, intelligent, thoughtful and vulnerable woman.

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