The love of a father

Luis Dias

Due to the time difference, the Metropolitan Opera nightly live streams make it possible for us to watch them in the mornings here. As I am an early riser, I can often watch an entire opera before the rest of the household is up and about. At the time of writing this, the tally count has crossed a hundred.

As Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1931) is virtually the poster boy for operatic composers, it isn’t surprising that his ‘hit’ operas (and there are many!) have featured on the list of live streams. Having watched so many of them in such close succession, I began to notice a pattern: many (but not all) of his operas have touching portrayals of the bond between father (in a few cases the mother) and daughter (or son), and how that relationship can be put to the test due to their circumstances. It may not always be the central theme of the opera, but quite an important one all the same. It almost seemed as if Verdi were drawn to libretti that had this parent-offspring theme.

While other operatic composers go to town exalting romantic young love and put it right at the centre of their works (think of the ravishing tenor soprano love duets in the operas of his later compatriot Puccini, for example), Verdi’s great operatic moments are his baritone-soprano (or sometimes baritone-mezzosoprano) duets, usually between father and daughter.

I read up a little on the operas I watch, and this includes the biographies of their composers. And reading Verdi’s life story, it becomes poignantly clear why he would be partial to libretti that gave prominence to the parent-child bond.

Verdi fell in love with Margherita Barezzi, one of his students, and they were married in 1836, when he was 23. Two children followed quickly, a daughter Virginia Maria Luigia in 1837 and a son Icilio Romano in 1838. Unfortunately, both were short-lived, dying in 1838 and 1839 respectively. And the following year, 1840, Margherita passed away as well, leaving Verdi a childless widower at 27. Even one such loss would be a heavy blow to most, but Verdi suffered three in a very short time span. Mortality may have been more common in the past, but the emotional pain of loss and bereavement would have stung just as much as it would today.

Although he began a relationship (deemed scandalous by society then) with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi some years later, only marrying her in 1859 (they had no children), it is thought that the losses Verdi suffered in his twenties left a deep psychological scar. Many of his operas can be thus seen as an emotional outlet for what he had lost in his own life.

Take ‘Nabucco’ (1841), written shortly after his personal crisis and the opera that truly established his career as an operatic composer. Short for Nabucodonosor, (Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon c 605 BC to c 562 BC), it is a tale about an arrogant father (Nabucco), his wicked supposed daughter Abigaille), and a virtuous true daughter Fenena.

In ‘Luisa Miller’ (1849), the title character sacrifices her own romantic aspirations in order to save her father’s life. It doesn’t end well for her, as she dies in her

father’s arms.

The father-daughter theme is found in other Verdi synopses. In his potboiler ‘Stiffelio’ (1850), one of his less well-known operas, Stiffelio’s wife Lina and her father Count Stankar have poignant moments, and the father drives much of the action in the storyline.

Look at ‘Rigoletto’ (1851), one of the three operatic ‘peaks’ of Verdi’s ‘middle’ period. The hunchback title character’s jealous over-protective love of his daughter Gilda dominates the plot. In a tragic twist of mistaken identity, he ends up murdering her instead of his own debauched employer, the Duke, with whom she was madly in love.

There is a gender switch in ‘Il Trovatore’ (1853); instead of a father-daughter relationship, we have a mother-supposed son bond in gypsy woman Azucena and Manrico. Operatic synopses are usually convoluted, but this one takes the proverbial biscuit. To avenge her mother’s wrongful execution by burning at the stake at the behest of the Count di Luna, Azucena meant to immolate one of his two children, but in her confusion sacrifices her own child, and has to bring up the Count’s actual son Manrico as her own instead. When the Count’s son eventually unwittingly orders Manrico’s (his own biological brother’s) execution (long story), Azucena’s mother is finally avenged.

There is a slight variant of the theme in Verdi’s famous ‘La Traviata’ (1853), but here the dramatic tension is between father and possible daughter-in law, when Giorgio Germont prevails upon the courtesan Violetta Valéry to break off her relationship with his son Alfredo, as it is jeopardising his own daughter’s engagement prospects. “Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia,” (Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter) he pleads with her.

In a later opera, from 1857, ‘Simon Boccanegra’ (based on a real-life Doge of Genoa who lived in the 1300s), we are told in the prologue that the woman he loves has died, and that the child she bore him out of wedlock has disappeared without a trace. Although he gets appointed Doge of Genoa, he realises that the two people he most loved in the world are lost to him. The plotline moves to twenty-five years later, when he has an emotional reunion with his long-lost daughter Amelia in a most beautiful duet: ‘Figlia! Atal nome io palpito’ (Daughter! At that name I tremble). One can almost picture Verdi imagining what it would have been like to behold his own daughter had she not been snatched away from him so cruelly in infancy.

In the opera, the father’s joy is short-lived, as Simon Boccanegra dies at the end, leaving his daughter in the hands of her beloved Gabriele, who succeeds Boccanegra as the new Doge of Genoa.

In ‘Aïda’ (1871), the title character, an Ethiopian princess kept in captivity by Egypt, is torn between her love for Radamès, Captain of the Egyptian Guard and vanquisher of Ethiopia’s army, and her loyalty to her father Amonasro, king of Ethiopia and to her native land. To thicken the plot, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris also loves Radamès, making the two women love rivals. Aïda fulfills her duty to her father and country by extracting military secrets from Radamès, but joins him in an entombed death when he is punished for high treason on account of

that betrayal

Verdi wrote over 25 operas in all, not counting revisions. But the parent-child bond in so many of them must mean that he was attracted towards such libretti, and that he was drawing from personal trauma and experience when he wrote such potent, immortal music.