This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest Italian composers of all time. Giuseppe Verdi was responsible for some of the best operas, which are still widely known and revered today: La Traviata, Aida and Rigoletto, to name just a few. Verdi dominated the Italian opera scene after the eras of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture.
Verdi was born to Carlo Giuseppe Verdi and Luigia Uttini in Le Roncole, a village in the province of Parma (Emilia-Romagna region) in Northern Italy. When he was still a child, Verdi’s parents moved from Le Roncole to a nearby village, Busseto, where the future composer’s education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. It was in Busseto that he was given his first lessons in composition. Verdi went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies. He took private lessons in music and voice while attending operatic performances and concerts. Eventually, he decided to pursue a career in theater composition.
After his studies, Verdi returned to Busseto, where he became the town music master and gave his first public performance at the home of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover who had long supported Verdi’s musical ambitions. Because he loved Verdi’s music, Barezzi invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita’s music teacher and the two soon fell deeply in love. They were married in May 1836 and Margherita gave birth to two children. Unfortunately, both died in infancy while Verdi was working on his first opera and, shortly afterwards, Margherita died of encephalitis at the age of 26. Verdi adored his wife and children and was devastated by their deaths.
His first opera, Oberto, performed at La Scala in November 1839, was successful and La Scala’s impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, offered Verdi a contract for three more works.
It was while he was working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, that Verdi’s wife died. The opera was a failure and he fell into despair, vowing to give up musical composition forever. However, Merelli persuaded him to write Nabucco and its opening performance in March 1842 made Verdi famous. It follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco. The historical events are used as background for a romantic and political plot. The best-known piece from the opera is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”.
A period of hard work – producing 14 operas – followed in the next fifteen years. These included I Lombardi in 1843, Ernani in 1844 and, for some, the most original and important opera that Verdi wrote, Macbeth (1847). It was Verdi’s first attempt to write an opera without a love story, breaking a basic convention of 19th-century Italian opera.
Sometime in the mid-1840s, Verdi “formed a lasting attachment to the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi who was to become his lifelong companion”. Their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived and eventually Verdi and Giuseppina married. In 1848, Verdi bought an estate two miles from Busseto. Initially, his parents lived there, but after his mother’s death in 1851, he made the Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata his home, which it remained until his death.
During this time, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. Based on a play by Victor Hugo (Le roi s’amuse), the opera quickly became a great success. There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi’s “middle period”: in 1853 Il trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas’ play, The Lady of the Camellias, and became the most popular of all of Verdi’s operas worldwide. You can listen to the drinking song, “Brindisi” from La Traviata, in the video below performed by two of my favorite opera singers, Dame Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti.
In 1869, Verdi was asked to compose a section for a requiem mass in memory of Gioachino Rossini, as part of a collection of sections composed by other Italian contemporaries of Rossini. The requiem was compiled and completed, but was cancelled at the last minute. Five years later, Verdi reworked his “Libera Me” section of the Rossini Requiem and made it a part of his Requiem Mass, honoring the famous novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, who had died in 1873. The complete Requiem was first performed at the cathedral in Milan in May 1874.
Verdi’s grand opera, Aida, is sometimes thought to have been commissioned for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and there had been a plan to inaugurate an opera house as part of the canal opening festivities, but Verdi turned down an invitation to write an “ode” for the new opera house. In 1869, the organizers approached Verdi (this time with the idea of writing an opera), but he again turned them down. When they warned him that they would engage the services of Charles Gounod and Richard Wagner, Verdi began to show considerable interest and agreements were signed in June, 1870.
Teresa Stolz was associated with both Aida and the Requiem, as well as, a number of other Verdi roles. The role of Aida was written for her and she performed the opera at the European premiere in Milan in February 1872. She was also the soprano soloist in the first and in many later performances of the Requiem. After Giuseppina Strepponi’s death, Teresa Stolz became a close companion of Verdi until his death.
In 1879 the composer-poet Boito and the publisher Ricordi pleaded with Verdi to write another opera. He worked slowly on it, being occupied with revisions of earlier operas, and completed the opera seven years later. This opera, Othello, his most powerful and tragic work, a study in evil and jealousy, is notable for the increasing richness of detail in the orchestral writing. Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto was also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part 1 with Victor Hugo’s translation. It was an international success and is famous for being one of the world’s best comic operas.
While staying at the Grand Hotel et de Milan, Verdi suffered a stroke on January 21, 1901. He gradually grew more feeble and died nearly a week later. Arturo Toscanini conducted a combined orchestra and choir composed of musicians from throughout Italy at Verdi’s funeral service in Milan. To date, it remains the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy.
Completing 25 operas throughout his career, Verdi continues to be regarded as one of the greatest composers in history. His works are noted for their emotional intensity, tuneful melodies and dramatic characterizations. He transformed the Italian opera, with its traditional staging, old-fashioned librettos and emphasis on vocal displays, into a unified musical and dramatic entity. As Verdi matured he played with the expectations of listeners, who expected scenes to unfold in familiar patterns. Instead, he would break off an aria and transition into a charged recitative or blur distinctions between forms and styles to make the music responsive to the dramatic moment and the text. The music of Verdi, one of Italy’s most outstanding composers, makes up some of classical music’s most timeless treasures and his operas are among those most frequently produced in the world today.
Verdi lived in Busetto in the heart of the Italian province of Parma, in Emilia-Romagna. When one thinks of luxurious Italian food, it is usually classic Emilia Romagna cuisine. The area is known for its flavorful produce dishes. Bright green asparagus is served with Parmigiano Reggiano and melted butter. The sweet chestnut, known as Marrone di Castel Rio, comes from Emilia Romagna, as do porcini mushrooms. Local shallots and olive oil pressed from local olives are prized for their quality. Pasta is a favorite food in the region. While polenta, rice and gnocchi were staples in Emilia Romagna cooking, fresh egg pasta is now more popular. Most areas consider tagliatelle their favorite shape and serve it with ragù. Recipes also include tortelli, or large pasta squares, filled with ricotta and greens and served with melted butter.
In addition to the Romagnola breed of cattle, rabbit, game birds and poultry are eaten. Wild duck and tomatoes are stewed with herbs, white wine and served with risotto. Cappone ripieno, or roasted capon, is stuffed with with a marsala flavored veal and ham filling. Other popular meats include pork, lamb and mutton. Proscuitto di Parma and fresh fruit are served together for a refreshing appetizer.
Emilia is well known for Parmigiano Reggiano, but the Grana Padano and Provonole Valpadana are also extremely high quality. Cheeses are used young, while sweet, or aged to develop a sharper flavor for grating. Ravaggiolo and squaquarone are also creamy piquant cheeses used in cooking. After so many rich dishes, it’s appropriate that many Emilia Romagna desserts are based on fresh fruit. Melons, stone fruits, berries and pears are most often served.
Toasted Polenta with Mussels
You can use any seafood to top the polenta. The same combination may be successfully used in bruschetta or crostini recipes.
- 1 ½ cups polenta
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 lb mussels, steamed and removed from the shell
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup white wine
- Olive oil for brushing
For the tomato sauce:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- Fresh basil
- 1 – 26-28 can diced Italian tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
For the green sauce:
- 1 cup green parsley, chopped
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1/4 cup pitted green olives
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Cook the polenta in salted water with the olive oil, in proportions according to package directions. You want a thick polenta, not thin. Pour the polenta into a loaf pan and leave it to set overnight; or for at least two hours.
The next day, cut the loaf into slices. Place the slices on a wooden board and brush with some olive oil. Next arrange the slices, oiled side down, on a greased oven rack. Brush the other side with olive oil.
Bake in 200°C/390°F oven until golden brown on top, for about 30 minutes. Then remove from the oven; let it cool.
Meanwhile prepare the mussels and sauces.
In a skillet heat the olive oil; add chopped garlic and the mussels. Then add the wine and let it cook until all liquids evaporate.
To cook the tomato sauce:
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan; add chopped onion and sauté until golden. Next add chopped garlic. Stir and sauté briefly, then add the canned tomatoes. Lower the heat and cook until the liquid evaporates and the sauce thickens.
Remove from heat and let the sauce cool slightly. Then place it in a food processor and blend with a small bunch of fresh basil, salt and pepper.
To make the green sauce:
Place all ingredients for the sauce in a food processor. Blend until fairly smooth.
Carefully remove the polenta slices from the rack and arrange on a serving platter. Top with the tomato sauce and green sauce. Then arrange the mussels on top. Serve warm.
Tagliatelle with Chestnuts, Pancetta and Sage
- 3 ounces pancetta (Italian unsmoked cured bacon), chopped (1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
- 8 ounces bottled peeled roasted whole chestnuts, coarsely crumbled (1 1/2 cups)
- 8 ounces dried flat egg pasta such as tagliatelle or fettuccine
- 2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Cook pancetta in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic, 1 tablespoon sage and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in chestnuts and remove from heat.
Cook pasta in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water, then drain pasta in a colander and add to the pancetta mixture in the skillet. Add the reserved cooking water along withthe cheese and butter and cook, tossing constantly, over high heat until pasta is well coated, about 1 minute. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve sprinkled with parsley and remaining tablespoon sage.
Pork Tenderloin Prosciutto Parma
Serve with broccoli rabe. Try to purchase authentic Italian Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano for this dish—even though it is more costly, the superior flavor is worth the expense.
- 2 teaspoons fresh sage, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 2 pork tenderloins, (1-1 1/4 pounds each), trimmed
- 4 thin slices Italian Parma ham, (Prosciutto di Parma), divided
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
- 3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Combine sage, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Butterfly the tenderloins, so they can be flattened, stuffed and rolled. To do that, make two long horizontal cuts, one on each side, dividing the tenderloin in thirds without cutting all the way through. Working with one tenderloin at a time, lay it on a cutting board. Holding the knife blade flat, so it’s parallel to the board, make a lengthwise cut into the side of the tenderloin one-third of the way down from the top, stopping short of the opposite edge so that the flaps remain attached. Rotate the tenderloin 180°. Still holding the knife parallel to the cutting board, make a lengthwise cut into the side opposite the original cut, starting two-thirds of the way down from the top of the tenderloin and taking care not to cut all the way through. Open up the 2 cuts so you have a large rectangle of meat. Use the heel of your hand to gently flatten the meat to about 1/2 inch thick.
Cover each butterflied tenderloin with 2 of the prosciutto slices, then spread 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano over the ham, leaving a 1-inch border. Starting with a long side, roll up each tenderloin so the stuffing is in a spiral pattern; then tie the roasts at 2-inch intervals with kitchen string.
Lightly brush the roasts all over with 1 1/2 teaspoons oil, then rub with the reserved herb mixture. Heat the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons oil in a large, heavy, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the roasts, bending to fit if necessary, and cook, turning often, until the outsides are browned, 3 to 5 minutes total.
Transfer the pan to the oven and roast, checking often, until the internal temperature reaches 145°F, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes. To serve, remove the string and cut the pork into 1-inch-thick slices.
- THE ROYAL OPERA : LA TRAVIATA Giuseppe Verdi 19, 21, 24, 26, April and 3, 6, 9, 12, 17, 20,30 May (londonvisitors.wordpress.com)