Article by Adrian Mourby
Fathers and their missing daughters is a theme that runs like a black seam of anguish through Verdi’s operas. If ever there were a composer who found his subject matter early on, and returned to it relentlessly, it was Giuseppe Verdi. The motif runs from Nabucco all the way through to Aida.
If we are looking to find biographical explanations in Verdi’s life, they rise up to meet us. In 1836 the young composer from Le Roncole married his pupil, Margherita Barezzi. In quick succession she gave birth to two children, Virginia Maria Luigia and Icilio Romano. The family idyll was not fated to last. Virginia died in August 1838 and Icilio in April 1839 while Verdi was working on his first opera, Oberto. The following year, in June 1840 Margherita died of encephalitis. Her heartbroken father, Antonio Barezzi, recorded “Through a terrible disease, perhaps unknown to the doctors, there died in my arms…my beloved daughter Margherita in the flower of her years”. Verdi, struggling to complete Un giorno di regno, vowed to give up music. At the age of 26 his life lay in ruins.
It was Bartolomeo Merelli, the impressario of La Scala, who persuaded the bitter young widower to keep writing. His motives were not entirely altruistic. The composer owed him an opera. So, according to Verdi’s own Autobiographical Sketch (1879) he looked at the libretto of Nabucco and found stirring inside himself the music of ‘Va pensiero’ and was inspired to compose again. The premiere of Nabucco in March 1842 made the anguished composer a force in nineteenth-century opera and famous throughout Italy.
Nabucco is a confusing opera full of politics and religion but at its heart we find a father with two daughters. One of them, Fenena, is God-fearing and wishes to free her father’s Jewish slaves. The other, Abigaille, persecutes the Jews unaware that she herself is not really Nabucco’s daughter but an adopted slave. When Nabucco loses his reason and declares himself God, Abigaille tricks him into signing his true daughter’s death warrant, but the king recovers his sanity in time to save Fenema from death. The two of them are reconciled while Abigaille, the bad daughter, poisons herself. At a time when opera tended to be about big themes like destiny, tyranny and love, Verdi, who had already featured fathers and daughters in his first two minor works, was homing in on domestic anguish.
A year later I Lombardi was also premiered at Milan and revealed a plot similarly vivid and melodramatic to Nabucco. At its centre lay the problematic relationship of the crusader Arvino and his virtuous daughter Giselda, who is kidnapped by the Muslim ruler of Antioch. When Arvino rescues her in an act of bloody violence, she recoils from her father’s embrace and, in his fury, Arvino tries to kill her. Father and daughter are eventually reconciled but the nature of Verdi’s return to the subject of a father’s troubled relationship with his daughter is telling. The composer is more interested in this dynamic rather than in the relationship between Arvino and Giselda’s mother, Viclinda, the woman over whom Arvino and his brother contended for so many years. Erotic love hardly interests Giuseppe Verdi. His best music is reserved for more filial emotions.
Verdi was not exceptional in homing in on virtuous young women who have lost the protection of fathers. From Oliver Twist’s mother to Magwitch’s daughter Estella in Great Expectations Charles Dickens knew he could excite the male Victorian sensibility with daughters in distress. Victor Hugo makes much of Jean Valjean’s determination to rescue the orphaned Cosette, becoming in effect her surrogate father, in Les Misérables, but no-one returns so repeatedly to the subject as the widower from Le Roncole.
After two non-filial operas, Ernani and Il Due Foscari, Verdi resumed his exploration of this motif in his own idiosyncratic reworking of Giovanna d’Arco (1845). This opera was based on Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orleans but Verdi was not happy with Giovanna’s father being just one supporting character among 25. He worked on the libretto with Temistocle Solera until old Giacomo became a major force in the story. Crucial to the plot is a troubled father betraying his beloved daughter because he is convinced she has entered into a pact with the Devil. Later he repents and rescues Giovanna from death at the stake. It is in his arms that she dies after bringing about one final victory for the French.
Alzira, premiering the same year as Giovanna d’Arco, was a story of Incas fighting conquistadores with our titular native heroine being forced into a Spanish marriage to bring about peace. The role of the Chieftain Ataliba, Alzira’s father, was not crucial to the plot, but it allowed Verdi to voice a father’s concerns that his daughter was not yet ready to marry.
Attila (1847) proved to be another story of a daughter fought over by two men, but when we discover Verdi’s heroine Odabella she is mourning the death of her father, the lord of the Aquileia, a city recently destroyed by the Huns. When Attila offers to reward Odabella for her bravery she asks for her sword so that she might avenge his death at Attila’s own hand. The heroine’s best arias ‘Da te questo or m’è concesso’ (‘O sublime, divine justice by thee is this now granted’) and ‘Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo’ (‘O father, is your image not imprinted on the fleeting clouds?’) explore the importance of the relationship with her murdered father, not her mistrustful lover, Foresto.
The same year I Masnadieri also finds a woman caught between two men who wish to marry her. This time the woman, Armalia, is the cousin of Carlo and Francesco, sons of Count Moor. When we first meet her in the domestic third scene, she is watching over their father, her uncle with whom she has a loving daughterly relationship. With the notable exception of Desdemona in Otello, Verdi always seizes on the opportunity to highlight the role of his heroine’s father or father figures.
The composer took a break from this motif in Il Corsaro and La battaglia di Legnano but came back to it with a vengeance in Luisa Miller (1849) in which the heroine is forced to deny her true love for Rodolfo in order to save the life of her father, old Miller. When the three of them die at the end of the opera, Luisa sings “Padre, ricevi l’estremo addio” (“Father, receive my last farewell”) and he replies “O figlia, o vita del cor paterno” (“Oh, child, life of your father’s heart”). Rodolfo, who has poisoned both himself and Luisa, dies guiltity on the sidelines.
Stiffelio, the following year, centres on a Protestant minister whose wife, Lina, has committed adultery, but the opera has a substantial role for her widowed father, Count Stankar, the man who uncovers and seeks to resolve this appalling situation for his daughter. The baritone role of Stankar is much more powerful than either of the two tenor roles, Stiffelio and Raffaele, Lina’s lover. In Act III Stankar’s aria ‘Lina pensai che un angelo in te mi desse il cielo’ (‘Lina, I thought that in you an angel brought me heavenly bliss’), recalls the heartfelt eloquence of King Philip’s in Act IV of Don Carlos. It is Count Stankar who grieves most eloquently and who slays Raffaele, while Stiffelio is left to forgive his wife.
A vengeful father is also at the centre of Verdi’s next opera Rigoletto (1851). While the two lovers, Gilda and the Duke (disguised as a penniless student) carry the erotic line of the plot forward, the real story is that of a father so desperate to protect his daughter from the vices of Mantua that his stratagems actually draw attention to Gilda. After she is abducted by the Duke’s men, deflowered by their master and abandoned, Rigoletto vows revenge at any costs in the duet: ‘Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta!’ (‘Yes! Revenge, terrible revenge!’) while the conflicted Gilda pleads for her lover’s life. In a horrific act of substitution in the last act Gilda dies because her love for the Duke is greater than her love for her father and Rigoletto is left with the horror of having killed his daughter. Many of Verdi’s heroes almost kill their daughters; Rigoletto whilst trying to protect Gilda actually succeeds.
Rigoletto is undoubtedly Verdi’s darkest father-daughter opera. His next essay on the subject was La traviata (1853) where the best music and strongest emotions are not between the immature Alfredo and his Violetta, but between Germont, Alfredo’s father, and Violetta the fallen woman whom he asks to give up Alfredo. In doing so Germont asks her to think of what this affair will do to Alfredo’s sister, “a daughter as pure as an angel”, and as she makes the necessary sacrifice, Violetta asks Germont to call her “daughter” too.
“Say to your daughter, pure as she is and fair, That there’s a victim of misfortune Whose one ray of happiness Before she dies Is a sacrifice made for her… As your daughter now embrace me, So may you give me strength.”
The opera’s heart lies in the strange rapport that springs up between these two, the daughter obsessed father and the fatherless daughter.
Verdi let up on his obsession in I vespri siciliani but returned to it full force in Simon Boccanegra (1857) with two bereaved fathers. In the opera’s prologue not only is old Fiesco mourning the death of his daughter (Boccanegra’s mistress), but Simon Boccanegra loses the daughter that has recently been born to her. Twenty-five years later in Act I, Fiesco’s adopted child Amelia is believed by some to be Boccanegra’s mistress but she turns out to be (unbeknownst to Boccanegra) that very kidnapped daughter. After much plotting and anguish Amelia manages to effect some reconciliation between Fiesco and Boccanegra, the two men who clashed so bitterly over her mother. It’s a dramatically and emotionally complex story and the only time Verdi tried to deal with fathers, daughters, and fathers-in-law, but behind the intrigue and storm of music lies the plight of fathers separated from their children, finally reunited or lost forever.
While Un ballo in maschera (1859) contains no fathers and daughters La forza del destino (1862) is dominated by the Marquis of Calatrava, whose opposition to his daughter’s marriage to a mixed race aristocrat, Don Alvaro, results in his accidental killing. Calatrava dies cursing his daughter and at the end of the opera she is killed by her brother to revenge the family honour.
Nearing the end of his career Verdi featured a father who takes his son’s fiancé from him and marries her himself in Don Carlos (1867). His late masterpiece Aida (1871) opposes two set of daughters and their fathers, the Ethiopians Aida and Amonasro and the Egyptians Amneris and her royal father, the King. In Act III the captive Amonasro, reunited at last with his daughter, manipulates her into betraying Radames, the man she loves. This must be Verdi’s least likeable father. For once the more interesting relationship lies within the love triangle of Amneris, Radames and Aida. As he approached his seventh decade Verdi seemed to be willing to let the subject drop.
In Otello (1887) he actually agreed to Boito cutting Desdemona’s father Brabantio from the libretto entirely – a character whose woe and rage he would have relished in earlier years – and in Falstaff (1893) he and Boito made little more of the father-daughter subplot between Ford and Nanetta than Shakespeare did between Page and Anne.
It is tempting to speculate that Verdi’s adoption of his cousin’s ten year old daughter Filomena in 1869 helped calm some of Verdi’s anguish. She lived with Verdi and Strepponi at Villa Verdi and when she married in 1878 the composer walked her down the aisle, as he would have hoped to walk Virginia Maria.
But he never entirely let go. At the end of his life Verdi offered Pietro Mascagni a libretto he had been working on first with Cammarano and then with Somma. It was Re Lear, a retelling of King Lear in which Lear and Cordelia were the main characters, with Edgar and Edmund as her contending suitors. Verdi explained to the younger man that he had given up when he contemplated “the scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath; it scared me”. However the little that he had written comprised of Lear and Cordelia’s farewells as they were borne off to prison. The subject of fathers and daughters remained one of intense, personal fascination.
Adrian Mourby is a writer and producer who has worked as dramaturg at Wienerstaatsoper and broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. He has written five novels and directed operas by Purcell, Handel and Mozart.