Planet Opera: Busseto, At Home With Giuseppe Verdi

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 12:00 PM

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)


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Comments [6]

Fred Plotkin from New York

Dear Mr. Fischbein, Thanks for your kind offer. I will write to the people in Italy who would be the beneficiaries of funding from such a foundation. When I hear back, we can proceed if that is possible. Thanks, Fred Plotkin

Nov. 07 2013 01:16 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Mr. Plotkin, I am quite serious about setting up 5-01 C-3 to educate the public on Verdi and his Operas, and fascinating life , and benefiting all members of the public about this theatrical genius. You can also have funds allocated for renovation and upkeep for the home in Italy.
A 501 c-3 would allow the officers of the tax exempt group to apply for grants which I feel would be available. I want to be sure you understand I would not serve on any board or help in fundraising as I already have a full plate on the farm, and with my music studies and wedding performances my quartet plays at. We also perform at holiday and events and have a busy season ahead.
If you would like me to be of help in the initial phase of finding a qualified pro bono attorney please let me know and provide me with a way to contact you. Words do little until turned into action and this seems like a worthy cause that could benefit many people .
While I cannot do and entire 501 c-3 application, perhaps I could be helpful in finding a Washington D.C, Tax attorney who would be willing to help.
There is a former President of The Washington Performing Arts Society who is presently the managing partner of a large tax law firm and who MAY, I say May possibly be of help to you in this endeavor. If you wish I can put you in contact with him. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 04 2013 09:39 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Whenever I am performing outside of my own residential area, I seek out the landmarks, such as Beethoven's birthplace in Bonn, Mozart's in Salzburg, Schubert's Vienna and Wagner's and Bach's in Leipzig. Amazingly, Wagner's birthplace on the BRUEL, which building was destroyed in WW ll and now is the site of a kaufhof, a department store, was unknown by many of the workers and residents. However, there is a bas relief plaque on the front of the department store indicating Wagner's birthplace. If any edifice should be saved, that hasn't been, Verdi's birthplace deserves first place. Verdi's oeuvre will survive as long as any musical masterpieces despite the fads of the day. But we should strive to save while the saving is stlll possible. FRED, thanks for your always pertinent thorough panoramic blogs. To offer my credentials to my critiques, I suggest to those interested to hear what a real ECHT Wagnerian heldentenor sounds like to go to my website. LAURITZ MELCHIOR was the CARUSO of the Wagnerian heldentenors. None can compare to him vocally. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute and may be heard at the RECORDED SELECTIONS venue on my website in 37 out of the 100 selections that I have sang in four three-hour-long solo concerts in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of CARNEGIE HALL. On last Sunday October 27th at 5 PM, at the NEWLIFE EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel I sang my fourth concert in New York of the series "The 300 Greatest Love Songs of Broadway Musicals, Movies, and The Grammys." The 300 Love Songs on ten DVDs recorded live on the VALHALLA RECORDS label will be obtainable commercially on February 14th, 2014, Saint Valentine's Day.

Nov. 04 2013 09:27 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Words are important, but never confuse words for action. It is action not words that accomplish things. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 31 2013 12:28 PM
Cara De Silva from New York City

I devoured this article. Will now go back and reread and revel. Busseto, Verdi, and the home he shared with Giuseppina Strepponi, have remained part of my mind and heart since I first went there years ago. It is also the place in which I saw a laborer with a radio cradled on his shoulder listening to what? Not Italian pop, but my beloved Verdi. Also home to the first glass of blood orange juice I ever had and my first taste of culatello, delicious beyond describing. Thank you so much for this beautiful evocation, dear Fred. And, yes, the risk to Busseto is terrifying. Keep writing. Keep writing. Your words are so important.

Oct. 30 2013 08:12 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Count me in, I would love to visit next summer when we plan to go to Italy.
I can imagine how you felt walking through the house.
I recall a similar incident some thirty years ago. I have always loved to read Hemingway, and for a while i helped the editor of The Hemingway Review research several articles that appeared therein.
The first time I walked into the Hemingway House in Key West I literally began to cry, and it was hard to keep my composure. Several years later I was able to fly to Cuba, having my passport stamped for one trip to the Island for research and flying in through Canada
Once in Havana, I engaged a driver to take me to Hemingway's finca, and walking there seeing his work desk, antique typewriter and many cats still descendant from his six towed favorite cat Boisie, once again I was overcome.
I can see and feel just how important it would be to maintain the Verdi house. You may want to try to establish a 501 c-3 tax exempt group to fund raise for it.
So long as you show a connection to Public Radio and do not include words like Conservative or God forbid Tea Party you will most likely get approval.
It involves a great deal of paperwork but i am sure with your connections you could find a tax attorney who would be willing to walk you through the paperwork pro bono.
Once established I would be more than happy to make a donation. However when you try to get a tax exempt 501 c-3 for funding an offshore entity like the Verdi house it may be difficult, the best way to approach it would be to establish a 501 c-3 to broaden the understanding of Verdi and his contributions to the world of Opera, then channeling funds to keep his family home in repair, this would most likely be OK, but obviously check with a tax attorney. Good luck and God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 30 2013 06:17 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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