Planet Opera: Busseto, At Home With Giuseppe Verdi

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BUSSETO, ITALY—There is an unmistakable timeless atmosphere in this northerly corner of Emilia-Romagna, just south of the Po river. If you pay attention, you realize that the particular sights and smells you encounter now are quite similar to that known to Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, who was born in Roncole, just outside of Busseto, 200 years ago this month, and who lived on a farm in Sant’Agata, just a bit further away, for 50 years starting in 1851.


The rich brown soil, nourished by the river, has a complex, persistent fragrance (perhaps a too-kind term for the more generic “smell”) that might be off-putting to some but to me speaks of life and vitality. The landscape is almost entirely flat but, with little more than a few stands of trees, a random cascina (old farm house) and the infrequent sighting of a church steeple, the effect is of a broad expanse of brown and green under a large dome of sky. There are rare days of blue sunniness but, as often as not, there is the foschia, which is more than a mist but not quite a fog. In Verdi’s time, and even in my first visits to this area in 1975, fog was much more of a factor in fall and winter. It had a way of drawing one into one’s self, of making one’s hearing, smell and touch more sensitive in the absence of easy visual cues.

Such an environment might be difficult for many people to endure year after year. And yet this land provides a sense of continuity and, if one looks closely (through the foschia), it is humming with activity. Some of the best food in Italy is made here, whether it is Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or the tender, succulent culatello di Zibello, a ham cured by the local mists, that cultists consider superior to the exalted prosciutto di Parma made nearby. Local wheat goes into fresh pasta made with eggs rather than water. While egg-producing hens survive, like Scheherazade, to lay another day, the fate of their randy consorts is more dramatic. Roosters in these parts first suffer the indignity of becoming capons and then wind up in hot water. Cappone bollito is served with a condiment of sweet pears and tart mustard oil. The capon broth is used to cook pasta, giving it a stunningly rich and complex flavor.

I mention this not to give some nutty stage director a concept for a new production of Rigoletto, set in a henhouse with the Duke, dressed as a rooster, strutting about as Rigoletto plots to turn his boss into a capon. Rather, it is because I want you to realize the degree to which this environment, which might seem gloomy and forbidding to some, exerted such power on Verdi’s imagination. Yes, he presented seven operas in Milan, five in Venice, three in Paris and two in Rome. And, yes, he spent long stretches of 40 winters in his beloved Genoa. But his point of reference and his context were always Busseto and the surrounding area.

The house where Verdi was born in Roncole is still there to be seen. It was only opened to the public in 2001, at the centennial of his death, but I was able to visit it in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when few people made the effort. What strikes me so often in this area is that, while most people are certainly aware of the great composer’s achievements and some love and revere him, to others he is a product just as much as the cheese and the ham that are the foundation of the local economy. Parma (25 km away) has its Verdi cultists who can analyze plot points in Alzira or chord changes in La Battaglia di Legnano as if they were known to everyone. But, locally, he is part of the environment.

In Busseto, as a visitor, you typically stay at the Hotel I Due Foscari, named for a Verdi opera and owned by the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi but now operated by his family. Although the town has a population of seven thousand, it is mostly quiet apart from the charmingly animated Friday market on the main street. The only sound one hears, rather too loudly, are the church bells that ring every 15 minutes from 7 am to midnight. If you don’t own a watch (once quite a luxury) or cannot see it in the fog, this is how you knew what time it is.

Near the hotel is the Piazza Giuseppe Verdi. On one side is the not-to-be-missed Casa Barezzi, owned by Verdi’s father-in-law. It was here that the teenaged Verdi lived when he came in from Roncole. Antonio Barezzi was the patron of the local orchestra and gave Verdi his first chance to conduct. His daughter, Margherita, married Verdi and, as is well known, she and their two children died in 18 months between 1838 and 1840. 

Across the piazza, past an enormous statue of Verdi, is the city hall and, inside, the intimate Teatro Verdi with about 300 seats. One of the highlights of my year was seeing a lovely performance of Falstaff, with the venerable Renato Bruson in the title role and a bright young cast surrounding him. The production was created for this theater in 1913 for the centennial of Verdi’s birth and was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It was revived, and the sets rebuilt, for a performance led in 2001, by Riccardo Muti. In the pit now was the very talented Sebastiano Rolli, from Parma, who upheld a great tradition.

The next morning, I spotted a pensive Renato Bruson in the dining room of I Due Foscari, quietly picking over a most un-Falstaffian continental breakfast. I realized I was the only guest who recognized him. From there I visited the Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata, one of the most complete expressions of the Verdi I know through his music and letters. He ran the estate, oversaw the raising of animals and crops and also dealt with his business affairs, all in a time before telephones and electricity. One understands why he signed his correspondence “Giuseppe Verdi, agricoltore.” There are pianos, books and scores here, but one senses that he put the rhythms of the land first.

This place, which should be declared not only a national monument but a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is facing fiscal challenges to stay viable. The rumors that it has been sold are not true. But it also is not the sort of place that generates much income. Many local people do not fully realize that the local boy-made-good is an international hero who brings people and respect to this part of Italy. There is a glitzy new Verdi museum in Busseto that has its worth, but nothing compares to being in the very space and breathing the same misty air that Verdi breathed. 

I am using this article to sound the alarm for Verdi lovers around the world to start a campaign to keep the Villa Verdi of Sant’Agata solvent. This is just the first step because, right now, there is not the foundational and legal means to do it. But, as a local man who loves Verdi and understands his meaning said to me, “When these things are lost, they are lost.”

Photos: Verdi's birthplace (Fred Plotkin) 2) Fred Plotkin at the Verdi statue on the Piazza Verdi in Busseto (Stefano Lanza)