“Figlia.” “Mio Padre:” Verdi’s Patriarchal Obsession


When we pick up an opera score or listen to a recording, oftentimes we do so in a detached way, just to listen to something beautiful or find music for a romantic dinner, or we do so in order to digest a role and an opera, which again forces us to look at the written score and reference the best historically accurate recordings we can find.  What we don’t often do, as singers, is delve further into the reasons why these operas were composed, what motivated the composers beyond just creating music, and why they oftentimes added their own characters to pre-existing dramas or wrote specific familial and socio-familial relationships within their operas.

In each composer’s respective repertoire, these operas hold significant developmental musical and compositional attributes as well the philosophical, psychological attributes.  Unlocking secrets behind the composition of these works and sometimes secrets about the composers themselves offers performers and the aficionado a more valuable starting point on which to base their characterizations and dramatic impetus.  Before approaching the issue of Verdi’s patriarchal obsession, it is first important to note that there were certain conventions during his time that had to be met.


“La Solita Forma and the Uses of Convention” is the title of a very important article by historian Harold S. Powers written in 1987.  In it, he argued about the analysis of, in my personal opinion, one of the greatest Verdian historians of all time, Julian Budden.  The argument between these two musicological giants refers to what is called “Verdian Tinta”:  a term that is not solely preoccupied with musical attributes but, rather, a musico-dramatic presupposition of Verdi himself.  There are many words that float around in history books that are specific to Verdian analysis.  For example:  Abramo Basevi’s other  terms “colorito” or “tinta generale,” referring to a general flavour that makes up the entirety of the opera; again, not necessarily musical.  Other popular terms associated with Verdi’s style during this period are: Versi scolti:  used for the scena (not unaccompanied but in a parlato type style) and Versi lirici:  used for action pieces and arias.  formal stanzas grouped symmetrically.

La Solita Forma: Abramo Basevi

Introductory music, usually instrumental

Tempo d’attacco: Recitative or dialogue to an initial or basic tempo

Adagio/Cavatina/”Pezzo concertato”

Tempo di mezzo (middle movement, interlude, often sounds “interrupting”)

Cabaletta and (in the case of the final scene of an act)

Finale Stretta

Also the scenes have a specific structure, they are not simply written out.  During this period in Italian opera, it was mandatory to follow these set structures at the behest of getting your opera censored.  Yes, things were that specific.  For example:  a Verdian duet, of which there are several in Rigoletto, begins with a “Tempo D’attacco”: a first lyric moment of a scene, usually adagio and in informal language.  Then comes the “cantabile” which usually contains a sustained flowing vocal line.  What is interesting is that Verdi began to break these traditions. For example, in Rigoletto he does not use this form in the Rigoletto/Sparafucile duet, nor the Gilda/Rigoletto duet “Pari Siamo” or the Gilda/Duca duet.  Thus, structurally, Verdi was beginning to break away from tradition, a process that he would struggle against until the end of his life and especially once a young man named Arrigo Boito came into the picture.

placido domingo

Rigoletto and Gilda

Early Background:

Verdi came from a peasant background and it was only through his future father-in-law that he was able to pursue a musical education.  Eventually, he became the greatest Italian opera composer even though, of course, I still argue for Puccini and Boito’s place in that echelon.  Just like our present time is a politically charged one, and we read of opera companies having to close their doors and threats to the livelihood of opera, Verdi too lived during a politically charged period called the Italian Risorgimento, or re-birth.  Italy had been oppressed politically, socially, and artistically, and once the country became unified in 1861, the arts were changed dramatically. It is not unforeseen why Nationalism was such a large threat in Verdi’s desire to write, at the beginning of his career.  Operas like Oberto, and I Lombardi alla prima incrociata, as well as Nabucco were all very nationalistic, however Verdi would later turn to treatments of more “human” dramas.  He became the principle authority in Italian music of Romanticism (the details of which have filled thousands of books); essentially, this meant that Verdi who had stemmed from the Scuola di Bel Canto (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini) began incorporating specific romantic idioms into their music.  Verdi also began a fascination with Shakespearean dramas because he felt they were the most “human,” especially Macbeth (which he set), Anthony and Cleopatra (which he abandoned), Otello (which he set) and King Lear (which he apparently set but burned).   Topics of passion for a lover and duty to family became a central element, one that engulfed the majority of the musical atrributes as well.  Most often, Verdi places his characters in a horrid situation between love for someone they should not love, and duty for their family, or more specifically and relevant to us:  a father figure, a point I’ll return to momentarily.



Death of his wife and Children:

In May of 1836, Verdi was appointed “maestro di musica” for the town of Busseto, and two months later he married the woman he loved, Margherita Barezzi.  The couple travelled to Milan for their honeymoon, but it was not simply a honeymoon.  Verdi was there to re-establish contacts where a promise of success shimmered.  It was during this time that he composed the Sei Romanze, which are in the Verdi Liriche book that many of you own and have studied from.  The most famous of these is “In solitaria stanza” which would present the germ of the melody of Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida” in Il Trovatore.  He also composed “Meine Ruh ist hin” from Goethe’s faust  “Perduta ho la pace” in which there is an echo of “Tutte le feste al tempio from Act II of Rigoletto.

Portrait of Margherita Barezzi Verdi, Wife of Giuseppe Verdi by Augusto Mussini

Margherita Barezzi

We do not know much about Verdi’s relationship with Margherita.  No letters survive between them.  Passive in every other aspect of his life, it is probable that he remained so even in private matters and that he consented as usual to play the role of a docile marionette whose strings were gently manipulated by his father-in-law. Margherita’s character comes to life only once in a famous letter Verdi wrote to Giulio Ricordi from Sant’Agata on October 19, 1879.  In this letter, he wrote that he had been suffering from angina and that he was having trouble paying the rent.  Seeing his distress, Margherita took up the few gold trinkets she possessed, went out of the house, and managed to gather together the necessary amount and gave it to Verdi.  He was very moved by this gesture.  There is only one portrait of them, in the Museo Teatrale alla Scala which shows Margherita at the time of her marriage.  She is described as plain, natural, and not one who gave an overall great impression.  During the same period, Verdi wrote,

“My small son fell ill at the beginning of April:  the doctors could not discover what was wrong, and the poor child died painfully, in the arms of his desperate mother.  But this was not enough: a few days later, my little girl also fell ill…and this illness also proved fatal!…and even this was not enough: in the first days of June my young wife was struck down by violent encephalitis and on June 19 1840, a third coffin left my house!  I was alone!…alone!! In the space of about two months, the three people most dear to me had vanished forever:  my family had been destroyed.”

It is from this moment that we might understand why Verdi had an obsession with the patriarchal in his operas and why the role of the “father” who was suffering or struggling with the loss of a daughter, either to some man who he knew would destroy her, or to illness.


The young Verdi with a look of sadness

The historian Helen M. Greenwald in 1994, wrote a seminal article on this patriarchal obsession.  Greenwald identifies certain aspects of Verdi’s operas, that they tend to be more masculine where, for example, Puccini’s operas are more feminine.  It is also not surprising that several of Verdi’s operas began to focus less on Nationalistic subjects but to merge them with the crucial father-daughter relationships that became the underlying current within them.

Verdian Operas that depict the Patriarchal Obsession

Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio and his daughter Leonora (1839)

Nabucco, King of Babylon and his daughters Abigaille and Fenena (1842)

Arvino the Count of Toulouse in I Lombardi and his daughter Giselda (1843)

Ataliba chief of the Peruvian tribe in Alzira and his daughter Alzira (1845)

Macbeth, and his son Malcolm (1847)

Massimiliano (the Count Moor in I masnadieri) and his niece Amalia (1847)

Luisa Miller and her father Miller (a retired soldier) in Luisa Miller (1849)

Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda (1851).

It is at this point that the father daughter relationships begin to be even more prominent in Verdi’s repertoire with:

Violetta Valery and her potential father-in-law Giorgio Germont in La Traviata (1853)

Simon Boccanegra and his daughter Amelia Grimaldi (1857)

Il Marchese di Calatrava and his daughter Leonora di Vargas in La Forza del Destino (1862)

Don Carlo and Elizabetta di Valois in Don Carlo (1867)

Amonasro King of Ethiopia and his daughter Aida (1871)

Ford and his daughter Nannetta in Falstaff (1893).

Rigoletto (1851)

Rigoletto is undoubtedly one of Verdi’s masterpieces:  even those critics who would consign the pre-Rigoletto works to oblivion are agreed on this fact.  It marks the beginning of his second or middle period.  In it, he continued the process he seemed to have begun in the last act of Luisa Miller: a move toward opening the closed forms of Romantic Italian Opera.  He continued to write his operas in separate numbers but with a more flexible approach and he continued to use the solita forma in many aspects but gradually he began to move away from convention.

In Rigoletto, Verdi’s working unit is no longer the aria, but the scena.  What is most interesting in the opera is that Gilda has three major scenes with her father, who rather than let his daughter be free to grow up in a normal environment, encloses her, smothers her, and controls her because he cannot bare losing her.  He had already, like Verdi lost his wife and all that remains of that love is Gilda.  His beautiful, “Deh non parlare al misero” in which he tenderly remembers his dead wife may be Verdi’s own thoughts about Margherita Barezi, and is expressive and consoling, as are the moving phrases in his reply to Gilda’s question about family, friends, and country.

In regards to Gilda, her coloratura is always dramatically or emotionally meaningful.  Never does Verdi give her runs for the purpose of aimlessly dazzling display.  For example, “Caro Nome, which is completely written in character is not the type of coloratura aria in which you would decorate the second stanza of the cabaletta, as is typical of Bellini or Donizetti and Rossini.  Verdi writes in what he wants, it is intended and should be sung emotionally not as a feat of vocal prowess, even if it requires one.

The duet “Piangi faniciulla” between Rigoletto and Gilda is most affecting, her disjointed tearful phrase contrasting with his legato. Verdi’s genius produces music of heart rending beauty by the simplest and most economic means.

The final act is telling because Rigoletto believes his daughter has gone to Verona and is safe.  His entire mood becomes one of revenge and so the last act is brilliantly constructed.  The storm scene is operatic writing at its finest, real music theatre as opposed to the concert-in-costume of a great many pre-Verdian Italian operas.

The final duet between Rigoletto and the dying Gilda is so difficult dramatically and well-written because the dying music is effective due to its combination of simple sincerity with the composer’s ability to draw beautiful lines out of the air.  The final release of “Lassu in cielo” is ethereal and must have been how Verdi himself wanted to hold his daughter or his wife as they died without his being able to save them.

Although all of the characters in Rigoletto are valuable to the plot.  Some might argue that the story is trite, however, dramatically speaking, even if one character were removed from the drama, the story would no longer work or make sense.  The remarkable psychological insight of the characters is integral to the overall structure of the opera but also to the structure of the music.  This attribute makes Rigoletto one of the most popular operas as well as one of the finest musically and dramatically.  The entire opera is infused with a humanity but in a very real sense, beneath the obvious surface differences, Rigoletto functions on the relationship between Gilda and her father: his protection of her, his control over her, his constant retelling of inner pain and loss over his wife, his withholding of information, his desire to be the only man in Gilda’s life…all this to protect his daughter, when in the end his own actions bring about her death.  Every time Gilda dies, Verdi’s children die again for him, and perhaps Rigoletto’s selfish actions in being so strict with his daughter are exactly what Verdi wished he had been able to do for his own children, but more poignantly to protect them from death.  Powerful as he was, he could not save his children, but they live immortal in Gilda and all of the daughters of the Verdian repertoire.


©Mary-Lou Vetere

EXCLUSIVE: Upcoming Interview with one of the Greatest Verdian Sopranos of our Day



On Thursday October 10th and Friday October 11th, The Last Verista will feature a fascinating, revealing portrait of Verdi and his music, his importance in today’s musical climate, and the difficulties and thrills of singing his heroines in an exclusive two part interview with one of the greatest Verdian sopranos of our day.  You DON’T want to miss this rare opportunity to hear her fascinating take on the great maestro and his music.  Stay tuned!!


interview in progress