Book Review: Verdi's Violetta gets the Callas treatment

THE REAL TRAVIATA: The Life of Giuseppina Strepponi by Gaia Servadio, Hodder £20
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THE great heroines of Italian opera - Leonora in La Forza del destino, Madame Butterfly, Violetta Valry in La Traviata - have tragic and above all brief lives. One of them, Puccini's Tosca, is an opera singer herself and her entire tragedy is played out in less than 24 hours, leaving little scope for reflection or regret. The great misfortune of Verdi's second wife, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, was that she had ample time for both.

Strepponi lived out her long life - she died at 82 - with a husband who married her grudgingly and ceased to love her; towards the end of their lives he even introduced a much younger rival, the Czech singer Teresa Stolz, into their household. Giuseppina was the mother of at least three illegitimate children during her early career, none of them by Verdi, and dumped them soon after birth in a doomed pretence of respectability.

When her career was at its height in the early 1840s, female opera singers were widely and correctly assumed to be courtesans, a state of affairs well known to audiences, who gossiped about their latest liaisons. With joyful sadism or at least a pronounced sense of irony, they would interrupt their favourites in the middle of a performance to demand that they sing a popular aria, "casta diva" from Bellini's Norma, regardless of the role they were actually playing.

It is unclear how much Verdi knew about his wife's illegitimate children; Giuseppina's surviving letters and notebooks apparently exhibit no overt manifestations of grief when her son Camillino, a doctor whose training she had paid for, died at the age of 25 in a cholera outbreak in Siena. With characteristic overstatement, Gaia Servadio writes of this incident that Giuseppina's first child "was allowed to die like a bastard with a history".

Unlike painters or composers, singers who lived before the invention of recorded sound present obvious problems for a biographer. Contemporary descriptions of Strepponi's singing style convey very little, as in this review by the critic Tosi of her Roman dbut in Lucia di Lammermoor in 1838: "Signora Strepponi (Lucia) who is new to our stage... demonstrated a melodious and limpid voice, accompanied by a good singing method and a perfect pronunciation."

Servadio hazards that Giuseppina's voice "had a Callas-like quality rather than a Joan Suth- erland one and was backed by musicality and dramatic feeling". Apart from being imprecise, Servadio's judgement has probably been influenced here by the unhappy parallels between Callas's and Strepponi's lives; both divas were in love with powerful men who humiliated them with their publicly expressed preferences for other women (in Callas's case, Aristotle Onassis's marriage to Jackie Kennedy).

Servadio presents Strepponi's long relationship with Verdi (they lived together for 53 years) in terms of a tragic reversal of fortune, with Giuseppina initially the more powerful of the two. Verdi turned to her for advice at a crucial moment in his career, after the hugely successful premire of Nabucco in 1842, when the management of La Scala invited him to name his terms for creating the coveted opening opera for the next season. Verdi had no idea how much to ask, and Giuseppina's suggestion that he demand the same amount as Bellini got for Norma, then the highest paid work in operatic history, took his breath away. But her advice was well judged and he got it.

Servadio recounts this episode in hectic prose: "He had been rescued from this labyrinth by a prima donna who had La Scala in her very blood". This is one of many moments in the book where Servadio appears to fall into exactly the same error as her subject, interpreting Giuseppina's life in grand operatic images - Ariadne betraying her father to save her lover from the Minotaur - when the event in question is more a case of one shrewd operator seeking advice from another. Servadio's prose is overblown, an eccentric brand of English which sounds like a translation - which is what it is, at least in part, according to a note tucked away at the end of the book. She characterises Giuseppina as a tragic heroine, swinging wildly between extremes of praise and blame, yet the tropes of romantic fiction are almost comically unsuited to her narrative.

Although Verdi drifted into living with Giuseppina, he was in no hurry to marry her. They were an acknowledged couple by the mid-1840s, a fact that scandalised the inhabitants of Busseto, the town in Parma where Verdi owned a house; their hostility to Giuseppina eventually drove him to buy Sant'Agata, the country estate which became his pet project, eating into his considerable earnings as he planned ever more grandiose extensions.

There the couple lived in almost monastic isolation, a situation which suited Verdi but not Giuseppina, who had by now retired from the stage and increasingly found herself with nothing to do, especially as they had no children (Servadio suggests, without supporting evidence, that she was unable to become pregnant after her brief affair with Donizetti, who died of syphilis). Verdi eventually married her in a clandestine ceremony in Savoy in 1859, an ungenerous gesture which he compounded by insisting on keeping the marriage secret, thus removing its chief advantage for his new wife.

Twenty years before, on a cold February night, Giuseppina had abandoned her three-week-old daughter Sinforosa on the steps of the Ospedale degli Innocenti - the foundling hospital - in Florence. Twelve days later she was back at work at La Fenice in Venice, a newspaper report commenting that Signora Strepponi had returned to the stage "after a short rest in Florence from a slight indisposition". While Giuseppina addressed Verdi in her letters as her great love, he may also have appeared in the guise of saviour after the exhaustion, concealed pregnancies and fear of poverty that stalked her working years.

By the time he wrote Nab- ucco for her, her voice was already fading and she was soon replaced in the part of Abigaille; in any case, the strength of Nabucco lies in its great choruses rather than its solo parts. Servadio casts Giuseppina as "the real Traviata", claiming that the privations of her life before she met Verdi inspired him to write one of his greatest operas, but even this is a dubious compliment: Violetta, unlike Strepponi, conveniently lies and releases her lover from his obligations. Giuseppina lived to suffer daily humiliations from Verdi and Stolz while Sinforsa, her abandoned child, died in a mental hospital in 1925 without ever knowing her mother.

Giuseppina deserves a tougher and a more detached biographer than Servadio, one who might be able to disentangle her from the Romantic tradition in which both women seem fatally enmeshed. Strepponi is interesting not just as Verdi's wife, or as the model for Violetta Valry, but as a talented, educated woman who was forced into the role of courtesan by her chosen career. There are hints even in this unsatisfactory portrait that she was more than a woman who gave all for love and got nothing in return.