In a modest public park in the town of Riva del Garda by the shores of Lake Garda, there is a bust of composer Giuseppe Verdi. A grander monument stands in Busseto, near Roncole, his birthplace, but the bronze head on a stone plinth between two trees in Riva del Garda captures the measure of a man who remains, more than a century after his death, the presiding genius of Italian opera.
When Verdi, born in 1813, came to the Italian lakes, it was mainly to work, and the heavy brow of the bust shows it. How else could he have completed so many masterpieces – Rigoletto, La traviata, Il trovatore, Nabucco, Don Carlos, La forza del destino and Aida, to name the best known – then, in a remarkable late burst of Shakespeare-inspired creativity, Otello and Falstaff?
This month’s staging of Otello at the Royal Opera House in London, conducted by Antonio Pappano and featuring German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, is the summer’s hottest ticket. All shows with Kaufmann have long sold out, though the performance on 28 June will be broadcast live in cinemas.
Few composers are as closely associated with their homeland as Verdi, whose grandly emotional, lyrical works provided the soundtrack for the Risorgimento, the violent creation of modern Italy in the 19th century. La traviata (1853) was written at his retreat on Lake Como, the Villa Margherita Grande, with its terraced gardens, astounding views of the lake, private beach and tunnel under the lakeside road. If you want to wake to the same view as Verdi, the villa can be rented and Milan’s ultra-modern Malpensa Airport is only about 45 minutes’ drive away.
I flew to Milan from Southend Airport, ready to have a bash in departures at Gia nella notte densa, Otello’s thrilling but ominous duet with his lover Desdemona – ominous as Otello’s jealousy will lead to tragedy, though the otherwise extremely helpful security woman felt my singing was asking too much. Verdi’s own life was nearly overwhelmed by real tragedy. His first wife and two young children died within three years of each other. The first night of his comic opera Un giorno di regno at Milan’s La Scala was a disaster and Verdi was obliged to sit through catcalls and boos.
La Scala; main picture: Lake Garda
But the setback was temporary. Nearly all of the composer’s future work was premiered at La Scala and was wildly successful. In the museum there I find original set designs from the 19th century, 20th-century posters for productions conducted by the legendary Toscanini and the keyboard used by Verdi himself. I also sit in a box in the main auditorium, which is essentially unchanged since Otello’s opening night on 5 February 1887.
Verdi stayed at the nearby Grand Hotel on that occasion and he was at the same hotel when he fell ill in 1901. Distraught Milanese laid straw in the street outside so that the traffic wouldn’t disturb their maestro’s final days. The Grand is proud of its famous guest – there have been many others, not least Maria Callas – and the manager is happy to let me sit at Verdi’s desk. She points out the window of Verdi’s mistress across the street.
It’s an easy walk from the Grand to the elegance of the 19th-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade and the Gothic Duomo, scene of the first performance of Verdi’s choral masterpiece, the Requiem Mass, in 1874. After performances Verdi would dine at Savini. I ask for Verdi’s seat, but get Hemingway’s instead, always a danger in the Med. The food is sublime if you like risotto and tiramisu.
Verdi did, certainly, though his favourite dish was a boiled ham shoulder from Roncole, which he would take on journeys. But I’m not sure I would get one of those past the lady at the airport in Southend.
Flybe goes to Milan Malpensa five times weekly from London Southend Airport; see southendairport.com
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