Sex and secrets on an operatic scale

Book Review: THE REAL TRAVIATA/ Gaia Servadio/Hodder & Stoughton, £20
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One of the most touching sights on the modern tourist's route around Florence is the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Above the colonnade, plaques of swaddled babies testify both to the genius of Della Robbia and to the nature of the place. It is a foundling hospital.

In February 1839, Giuseppina Strepponi left her three-week-old daughter on the hospital's turnstile, with half a golden coin tied to a string round her neck. Two years later, a couple arrived to claim her, bearing the other half of the coin. Nothing morecan be traced about the child, until her death in a mental hospital in 1925.

Operatic - melodramatic, even - as this story is, it is typical of Strepponi's life. She was, in her time, a great soprano, a prima donna who sang in most of Europe's leading opera houses; she was the wife of Verdi, probably the greatest opera composer of his century, but she was also not quite what she seemed.

Nor was Verdi. Apart from a mutual love of Shakespeare and billiards, what these two had most in common was a successful desire to construct fictional versions of their own lives. The major truths that they tried to conceal was that she had at least fourillegitimate children whom she disowned and that he had more mistresses than curtain calls.

Gaia Servadio has gone to great lengths to uncover the facts. It is not easy, and frequently she resorts to imaginative reconstruction. Was Strepponi Donizetti's mistress before she became Verdi's? Did his syphilis result in her subsequent barrenness? Was she "a gay coquette", more like Callas than Sutherland on stage? Did she take "sentimental liberties" with all her leading tenors, as well as with provincial noblemen and music-lovers all over Italy? Was their adopted daughter in fact one of Verdi's own natural children? Servadio thinks that the answer to all these questions is yes, and she is fairly convincing, if only because this is the kind of biography that forces you to go along with the theories or toss the book aside.

There are moments when that is tempting. English is not Servadio's first language and she has been ill-served by her editor. There are odd spellings - she writes of "yays and nayes"; odd contradictions - "she was respected thanks to her reputation but hampered by notoriety"; odd locutions - "he travelled about plying his hand" and unintended double entendres - "a cod-head struck a wretched tenor in mid-aria". Wretched indeed. "Morbid lassitude" is the excuse Strepponi offered when she wanted to duck outof an engagement, and her biographer's style can affect a reader in the same way.

Yet Servadio's researches are impressive, particularly when she writes of the atmosphere in pre-unification Italy, when there were half a dozen customs-posts between Naples and Milan, when the Austrians were in power and when opera was held in such high esteem that it was the essence of popular culture. "Viva Verdi!" the people would cry; not only were they extolling the composer, but they were expressing coded patriotism: Verdi stood for Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D'ltalia.

And the facts of Strepponi's life have their own fascination. Her father died young and the girl managed to support all her family (and possibly several children) on the strength of her singing, teaching and other activities until Verdi took her to live with him. When they eventually married, there was a time of great happiness before the first Aida, a ferocious-looking young singer called Teresa Stolz, became a permanent resident in their house. By this time, we are told, Strepponi's chin "was no longer clear-cut but lay restfully on her breast". So she was supplanted.

Gracefully, she tolerated the menage a trois until her death at the age of 82. As for her connection with La Traviata, it is indeed a sad story. She it was who translated the Dumas novel for Verdi, when her own voice was past its prime. She suggested thename Violetta because of her own love of violets. And the last thing that the faithless Verdi did for her was to pick a tiny bunch of November violets for her on her deathbed. With a flourish worthy of his own heroes, he laid them in her coffin.