When family tragedies struck, Verdi threw himself into work. His first two operas opened at La Scala to favourable reports. They certainly established Verdi as a serious composer. His third opera Nabucco triumphed at La Scala in 1842 with Giuseppina Strepponi in the starring role. By dressing up the story of his hero’s yearning for his lost homeland in Biblical terms, Verdi bypassed the problem of Austrian censorship, either by wit or luck.
Verdi had finally become famous, and was now commanding a higher fee than his contemporaries. His fame spread; his choruses were sung in the streets by ordinary citizens and become the hymns of Italian patriots and freedom-fighters in 1843, thus forging the composer's reputation as an ideological hero of the Italian people. Only the censors in Vienna disliked and distrusted his work.
With money flowing in, Verdi bought his beloved Sant'Agata property near Busseto and continued working. His creativity knew no limits and the 1850s became his most productive decade. Rigoletto 1851, the first of what is now called the Big Three RigTrovTrav, was a triumph when it opened in Venice. Il Trovatore was a great success in Rome in 1853 and La Traviata eventually triumphed in Venice.
Sculpture of Verdi in the front garden
The Risorgimento/re-rise was heating up. This was the C19th nationalist movement that sought a] Italy's independence from a range of occupying powers and b] unification into one nation. By March 1848, Italian patriots fought for 5 days in Milan, trying to drive the Austrian occupying forces out, and failed. Nonetheless, growing Italian nationalism was a constant and critically important backdrop to Verdi’s life.
In 1860, with Victor Emmanuel's assistance, Giuseppe Garibaldi led his volunteer red shirts in an amazing victory in Sicily & Naples. Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed first king of a newly united (albeit incomplete) Italy in March 1861. Count Camillo Cavour and Gousei Mazzini were the other heroes across Italy.
Verdi’s heroism was more emblematic than instrumental. Yet Verdi had truly become identified with the Risorgimento. His arias served as virtual national anthems during era when Italian nationalism was a dangerous concept. He even became a politician!
In his old age, Verdi’s political views were becoming less epic and more local. He paid for and established a new hospital for local farm workers and their families in Villanova, near Sant'Agata. He also bought a site in Milan for his pet project, a retirement home for older musicians Casa di Riposo.
During 1898 Verdi stayed in Milan’s Grand Hotel much of the time, supervising the building his project. Verdi was an old man (87) by Jan 1901 when he suffered a major stroke. When he died, Verdi left all Italy in mourning. A month later his and his wife's coffins were transferred from a temporary burial spot at Milan cemetery to the crypt in Casa di Riposo. At the state ceremony the funeral cortege was accompanied by family, friends, Italian Royal family, Italian politicians, foreign diplomats and composers, including Puccini.
Casa Verdi concert hall
Verdi’s own piano
Led by Arturo Toscanini, professional singers sang the Va, Pensiero chorus from Nabucco, thus repeating the triumph Verdi had enjoyed way back in 1842. In the streets 300,000 ordinary citizens lined the black-draped funeral route and joined in. Everyone was singing for Verdi of course, but also for the cause of Italian sovereignty.
Verdi had requested in his will that all the future royalties from his operas would go to the Verdi Foundation and thence to Casa Verdi. Thus Casa di Riposo per Musicisti became a rest home for retired opera singers and musicians in Milan. Designed by the poet-librettist Arrigo Boito and by his architect brother Camillo, it would be interesting to know why they chose to build in Neo-gothic style, since a sense of Italian nationalism might have produced a very different style. Ample, beautiful 19th-century environment, amid large windows, abundant space and furniture mark it as a house full of memories. Perhaps Verdi had originally thought of instrumentalists and singers specifically from the great opera house La Scala being his guests; in any case, all Italian musicians were soon welcomed.
Casa Verdi is now home to 55 musical students and recent graduates who are studying and working in Milan. Concerts are offered several times a week in the house, and residents are also given free tickets to La Scala. Verdi's own piano stands proudly in the concert hall decorated with wood panelling and painted trompe l'oeil draperies.
Casa Verdi communal dining room
Does this story sound familiar to people who saw the film The Quartet? If Verdi had met the musicians played by Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins in Beecham House, he would surely have approved.