Verdi territory: Parma and other operatic cities
The area in which Giuseppe Verdi was born and raised and where his talent was first recognized – Roncole di Busseto, Busseto and Parma – have a spirit rich with song and melody. It is a sort of sweet poison that some say comes from the fog and the land and which affects and impassions the people of this region. It is evidenced in certain trattorias, where even today, you will eat and drink accompanied by Verdi’s arias, and in the formation of societies such as the 27 Club, which was created in a bar in 1958 and hosts animated discussions of opera, deriving its name from the number of operas Verdi composed.
Verdi was born at home, which was also a tavern run by his father to supplement his work in the fields. A legend holds that while his mother was giving birth to him, a group of performers were playing and singing on the ground floor. And thus his destiny was shaped. Many who visit his birthplace are struck by the simplicity of the home. Verdi’s roots were those of a farmer, which comes through in some of the characters in his operas, in the way in which they react to adverse conditions, in their unyielding vitality, their ability to fight and not bow down.
Giuseppe began taking music lessons at a young age from the organist of the church in Roncole. After he became famous, he returned many times to where it had all begun for him. If you visit the church, the sacristan will show you the stairs that Giuseppe took to reach the organ. He will tell you, as he knocks on the worn iron railing, that the balustrade is the original, implying that the shadow of the “maestro” still lingers in the church.
Giuseppe’s musical gift was recognized and supported by Antonio Barezzi, a merchant with a passion for music and president of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Busseto. He took him into his home where Verdi began his musical studies in earnest and where he met Margherita, his benefactor’s daughter.
Under the porticos in the center of Busseto, in a lovely home painted in red, you will find the Casa Barezzi Museum. In one corner stands the piano where Verdi labored away at his craft, and the scene of a fateful moment. It was near the piano that Verdi kissed Margherita, but they were discovered by her mother, who then uttered the famous phrase, “It’s better if Verdi goes to Milan to study”. And, in fact, Verdi and Margherita moved to Milan when they were married in 1836. Unfortunately, their two children died in infancy and their mother followed them shortly after. Verdi defined these as his “cursed years”. His grief led him to state that he would no longer compose music. However, in Milan Verdi met Giuseppina Strepponi through Bartolomeo Merelli. Merelli gave him the libretto for Nabucco, and it captivated him. In a remarkably short time, the opera was ready and became the composer’s first triumph. From that point on, other works transformed Verdi into a celebrity, including Ernani and Macbeth.
However, in 1849, Verdi decided to leave Milan to live in the center of Busetto with Giuseppina Strepponi. But the locals did not approve of the relationship, as they were not married and the lady already had two children. At one point, someone threw rocks through their windows. Verdi then decided to move to the countryside and bought Villa Sant’Agata in Villanova sull’Arda, in the province of Piacenza. The house was originally a simple structure, but over time he added to it, and it eventually reached 50 rooms. Here Verdi led a quiet life, in harmony with the land. He loved to wake early, take a horse and buggy and travel along the carriage roads, lined with poplars, around the homesteads, as the farming work was just beginning for the day. These early morning rides, the sounds, the calm, the atmosphere resound in certain overtures and passages in his operas, arising from his attachment to the land where he was born. Although rich and famous, Verdi continued to refer to himself as a “farmer from Roncole”. His common touch, although constantly directed toward modernity, ensured that he was dearly loved in his time, as he continues to be.
In 1913, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the boxes of Teatro Regio in Parma were filled with nobility, but the galleries were overflowing with manservants and coachmen, the men and women in service, who watched his operas with an instinctive passion. A passion that is still strong, as evidenced by the number of local musical associations that seek to convey the beauty of opera to even the youngest citizens.
Teatro Regio is certainly one of the locations most associated with Verdi. The singers who take the stage here risk being booed off stage if they do not put their hearts into his works. The public’s knowledge of opera is impressive and the Teatro, along with La Scala, are the two places where Verdi’s operas are following with the most enthusiasm and comprehension.
There is one other theater associated with Verdi, bearing his name, which was constructed in Busseto while the maestro was still alive. The composer did not want a theater named after him, he thought it useless and a waste of money. To give you an idea of Verdi’s character, on 15 August 1868, when the theater was inaugurated, the box reserved for him was empty, nor did Verdi ever set foot inside. There are other places in the area in which you can take in the spirit of the great Italian composer. The Verdi Museum of Villa Pallavicino, just outside of Busetto, offers an itinerary highlighting the maestro’s work, with costumes, music stands and reproductions of original scenery which allow you to fully immerse yourself in his music and stories.
However, to fully understand Verdi’s compositions, to discover their secrets try venturing into the fields, among the ditches, canals and cornfields. Follow the road that Verdi ran along from a young age, at night and in the early morning, to travel from his home to Busseto to study the piano at Casa Barezzi. You might then begin to understand, for example, how and where the notes sung by the witches in Macbeth originated.
Here is a playlist of some of Verdi’s most famous pieces: Giuseppe Verdi – 101 Verdi
Below is a list of some of the most important Verdi sites: