Fathers and daughters

Article by Robert Thicknesse

Something terrible often happens to great plays when opera librettists get their paws on them. Take, as random example, the one where Lord Harcourt, keen for his sister to become Queen, has to dissuade her from eloping with Arturo di Northumberland, the infamous Yorkista disguised as a cabbie – remember the bit where Miss Harcourt’s Garter (the order, not the garment) is chucked through the window of the Palace of Westminster to land at the Prince’s feet as he enters the Abbey for his Coronation?

Course you do: that’s Henry IV Part II, as seen through the eyes of Felice Romani, a fellow better known for writing the libretto of Bellini’s Norma, and in many ways it’s typical of the indignities that have been shovelled onto the memory of Shakespeare by writers and composers in search of a subject for an opera who clearly found the originals somewhat lacking in drama. Shakespeare seems to be particularly jinxed territory: out of the 300 or so operas based on his plays, fewer than a dozen are even barely acceptable: compare this with ten-ish out of an attempted 70 based on Schiller, of which Luisa Miller, based on the German poet’s drama Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), is most certainly one.

Perhaps Schiller is simply the more “operatic” writer. In any case, in Verdi he found a kindred spirit who was largely responsible for introducing his works to an Italian population that was 80% illiterate in the mid-19th century but by 1865 had a choice of 348 theatres, almost exclusively dedicated to opera, which were effectively the only show in town. Opera was the Sunday night TV drama of working-class Italians, and Verdi was determined to use it as effectively as possible to disseminate his liberal, unifications ideals. And he turned to Schiller for his subjects on three other occasions: for Giovanna d’Arco, I masnadieri and Don Carlos.

Friedrich Schiller was one of the original angry young men, and exponent with Goethe of Strum und Drang, a wildly subjective form of literary expression that Schiller is particular used for specifically political ends. This was a direct result of his upbringing. He was born in 1759 in Marbach, near Stuttgart; his father was an officer in the army of Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg, one of the innumerable petty tyrants who ran bits of Germany as private fiefdoms in the 18th century. At the age of thirteen Schiller was forcibly enrolled in the Karlsschile, an establishment dedicated to training the pick of the local youth for Karl Eugen’s service. After seven miserable years he was expelled (for writing a tendentious essay on religion) but was forced to join the army as a surgeon.

His first play, Die Räuber (The Robbers, the basis of I masnadieri), was performed in Mannheim in 1780, and Schiller was thrown into jail for a fortnight for going AWOL from his regiment to watch it. While in the cooler he began to sketch out his next play: Kabale und Liebe, in which he let rip his disgust with Karl Eugen. Five years before, the Duke’s court musician, Christian Schubart, had been jailed (without the bother of a trail) for complaining too vociferously about Karl Eugen’s unpleasant habit of selling young men as mercenaries to other countries – specifically to England to be used as cannon fodder against the revolting Americans. This was the starting point of Schiller’s play. (Schubart spent seven years in jail; he is best remembered now for writing the poem Franz Schubert set in his song The Trout.)

The source of all evil in Kabale und Liebe is the unseen prince, obviously based on Karl Eugen, a vicious martinet and serial rapist surrounded by henchmen who have got where they are through murder and intrigue. The President of the Council – i.e. the prince’s enforcer – Walter, is one such, and it is his son, Ferdinand, who falls in love with the daughter of a music master, Luise Miller. President Walter is determined his son should marry nobility, and has one Lady Milford (a remarkably compassionate character) lined up for the job. With the aid of his secretary Wurm (how could he be anything but a villain?) the President destroys Ferdinand and Luise’s idyll by arresting Miller and forcing Luise to write a letter of assignation to a third party: Wurm makes sure Ferdinand gets to see the letter, whereupon he poisons himself and Luise, only to learn the truth as they both peg out.

Verdi and his librettist Cammarano’s problem was to transform this violent diatribe into something that would be understood by the Italian audience, and, importantly, get past the censor. So Schiller’s proto-revolutionary social critique had to go. The Millers are demoted from petty bourgeois to simple country folk – always a more romantic option; the President becomes the new Count, an operatic byword for badness, Ferdinand becomes Rodolfo (in case anyone confused him with King Ferdinand of Naples!) and disguises himself as a peasant to woo Luisa (complare Giselle, etc.). Hey presto, we have a ready-made opera where honest peasants can in time-honoured fashion distrust the motives of roué aristocrats – and be proved largely right to do so. In this framework the opera moves away from Schiller’s revolutionary ideals to express more specifically Verdian concerns, and chief among these are the relationships of parents with their children and the question of religion.

What is it with fathers and daughters in Verdi? There are plenty of bad people in his operas, but few bad parents; the central relationship in many of his operas is not that of lovers but of parents and children or something similar – consider Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Il Trovatore, Don Carlos and La Traviata, as well as Luisa Miller. It seems these relationships meant much more to the composer than the standard romantic entanglements of most 19th-century Italian opera, and some of his very greatest music appears in the duets where parents and children work out their destinies.

Of course Verdi did not invent the father-daughter relationship as an artistic construct. Think of Oedipus and Antigone, of Lear and Cordelia (and the others), of Prospero and Miranda, of Wotan and Brünnhilde: all these relationships have a power, complexity and humanity that are often lacking from libido-driven affairs of the heart. Nonetheless Verdi concentrated on this relationship – particularly in his middle operas written when he was in his thirties and forties – to an extent that drives you to ask what basis if any it had in his life.

And yes, he did have a daughter, if only briefly. In 1836, at the age of 22, he married Margherita Barezzi, daughter of Antonio, a successful local grocer and enthusiastic amateur musician (who became a substitute father to the composer). Margherita, a spirited redhead, gave birth to their first child, Virginia, in 1837, and in July 1938 their second, a son, Icilio Romano: both children were named after characters in the play Virginia by Vittorio Alfieri, a republican Italian patriot who chose to promulgate his revolutionary ideas through the medium of clumping Greek-style tragedies. In August Virginia died, aged sixteen months, and a year later Icilio too died of bronchial pneumonia. And then in June 1840 Margherita was struck down with “rheumatic fever” and died five days later. “A third coffin goes out of my house,” wrote Verdi. “I was alone! Alone!” that was pretty much it for Verdi and fatherhood. In fact there is no real suggestion that either he or his long-term companion and (eventually) second wife Giuseppina Strepponi had any great parental urge: she had at least two illegitimate children whom she dumped in the local foundling home, and there is a persistent tradition that one Santa Streppini, born in 1851, was their illegitimate daughter – and she was likewise left “at the turnstile” for abandoned babies at the Ospedale Maggiore in Cremona the same day.

What is most noticeable about the father-daughter pairings, of Simon and Amelia, of Miller and Luisa, of Rigoletto and Gilda, is that there is no mother on the scene: in each case she has been dead these many summers. So the daughter preserves the image of the absent wife and mother, as well as being the mirror of the father (in the sense that all parents see themselves in their children). And the music Verdi writes for them, particularly in the duets, is as frankly sensuous as anything he wrote for lovers. This is not to imply any sticky Freudianism in these relationships, though if you went to Germany, home of the conceptual staging, you would not doubt find many Electric renditions to choose from. Rather, there is no denial of the (one hopes) sublimated sexuality of the parental bond. (Actually, operatic characters are forever confusing parental and sexual bonds: “I’ll be your husband and father,” Ottavio sings to Anna in Don Giovanni.)

The parental story in Luisa Miller reaches its climax in Act 3. Luisa, never possessed of the strongest of constitutions, has succumbed to a fainéant sort of operatic madness and is writing a letter to Rodolfo proposing a joint suicide so they can enjoy their love in heaven. Miller appears, released from prison, reads the letter and has an outburst of self-pity (how could you think of leaving your old dad alone?) in which it isn’t too fanciful to see Verdi’s own remembered despair as the third coffin left his house nine years earlier. The duet, full of the burgeoning, breathless tremolos of the romantic reunion, then heads off into pure operatic fantasy-land as the two decide to go on the run, begging a crust from door to door: poor, yes, but at least they’ll have each other. This could be dreadful, but Verdi, with passionate restraint and dignity, makes the duet Andrem ramminghi e poveri a transcendent experience, as Luisa dutifully follows her father’s tune before launching into a rapt, pianissimo descant. It seems music of pure compassion – but actually Luisa hasn’t given up her thoughts of death, as her next piece (“A last prayer”) makes clear.

There is another parental relationship in Luisa Miller, between Rodolfo and his father, and this bears out my point about no-bad-dads. Verdi’s Walter is a considerably softened version of Schiller’s. his actions may lead to multiple death and disaster, but everything he has ever done – including murdering his cousin in order to become Count – has been done for weirdly twisted reasons of fatherly love: he is aware in a very modern way that the only contingent immortality humans can attain is through their children. By marrying Rodolfo to Federica he cements the family fortunes (she has royal connections) and ensures its continuation as Engels’s ideal mechanism of preserving property. Walter’s Act I monologue about his son is not the speech of a wicked man: what this character demonstrates is a developing, almost Macbeth-like awareness of the moral choices he has made. Having said that, there are few more sepulchral singers than the terrific Richard Angas, and operatic roles are infinitely open to interpretation; who knows what he might make of it. Certainly Walter is a major control-freak – but so was Verdi.

Luisa Miller is a fantastically pessimistic work, well on the way to the existential mayhem of Il Trovatore: the arias of that opera seem to spin off into a limitless, empty universe where there is really no love, no light, no help for pain. But this is the basis of Verdi’s humanism. The characters in Luisa Miller (and Trovatore) are abandoned by the God they put so much unquestioning faith in: both Luisa and Rodolfo repeatedly call on the deity not to forsake them, but there’s no answer from the deaf stars above. We are all alone. Verdi tells us. What we do with that information is up to us.