When Verdi was a young man in his twenties and newly arrived in Milan with his family, a great tragedy befell him that was to mark the rest of his personal and creative life. In the span of a few short years his wife and both his infant children, a son and daughter, died tragically of mysterious fevers. Understandably, the loss nearly drove the young composer into complete and black despair. In the midst of his grief he was forced to complete a comic opera that had already been commissioned. Not surprisingly, "Un Giorno di Regno" was a failure and left the young composer vowing never to compose again. But a chance encounter with Ricordi, the great music publisher, luckily brought the composer's self-imposed absence from the stage to an end. Once the libretto of "Nabucco" was thrust into his hand and Verdi's eyes fell on the verse of "Va Pensiero", the rest, as they say, is musical history.
Perhaps as a result of his early loss and thus the frustration of all of Verdi's paternal instincts (he never had additional children with his eventual second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi), the theme of fathers and daughters, and parents and children in general, figures prominently in the grand oeuvre of Verdi's great and long operatic career. Of the twenty-eight operas composed in his lifetime, a number of them explore the theme of parental love in its many guises and many aspects. Works such as "Il Trovatore", "Rigoletto", "Louisa Miller", even "La Traviata", followed years later by masterpieces such as "Simon Boccanegra", "Aida" and others attest to his lifelong attention to the dynamic, subtleties and depth of parental and filial love.
In addition, there may be other factors that weighed in Verdi's preference for this relationship over the more typical operatic preoccupation with young romantic love between the lead tenor and lead soprano. Verdi was always a very serious man, given to serious thoughts on weighty topics. He read widely and deeply, and had little truck with romantic nonsense. He did not have a reputation as a ladies man, for instance, and so seemed to take little interest in the romantic mewlings of lovesick tenors and sopranos, finding young love to be lacking in dramatic and psychological interest.
Another possible reason for his special preoccupation with father-daughter relationships was his constant love for the baritone voice. Verdi was a product of a village life. He was familiar with the "bandas" of his youth -- the local orchestras that seemingly every Italian town could not be without -- with their preponderance of wind instruments, a device he used routinely in his operas as a kind of off-stage comment on the passing scene. In addition every Italian village had a good men's choir, and Verdi would have had ample exposure at an early age to the timbre and sonority of a fine baritone voice.
He always felt that the tenor voice was somewhat of an aberration, and that the male voice more naturally resided in the baritone range. In addition, a tenor-soprano duet ends up being more of a duel between tenor and soprano, occupying as they do the same range separated by an octave or two. This often leads to the spectacle of the tenor and soprano both vying for that high C together at the end, rather than one voice being lower and therefore providing a natural harmonic counterpart. The sound of the baritone and soprano voice together is an absolutely melting combination, as evidenced by glorious father-daughter duets in such masterpieces as "Rigoletto", "Louisa Miller", "Simon Boccanegra" and even "La Traviata".
Normally the baritone and soprano only meet onstage in an antagonistic duet consisting of the evil baritone who's always forcing his attentions on the unwilling soprano, who actually loves the tenor (she loves to sing those high-C's with him, you know). As such these situations don't allow much room for psychological exploration of subtle emotions. Verdi as a rule abhorred the cliches and conventions of opera, and even though he had to adhere to many of them, he never gave up stretching and expanding the range of operatic themes and techniques.
Enlarging on this theme of psychological penetration, it is important to underscore the depth and insight that Verdi brought to all of his characters. Even the seemingly stock characters are always wrought more skillfully in Verdi's sure hand. In addition to being a great composer, Verdi was a great dramatist and master of the theater and the theatrical moment. Nothing escaped his eagle eye. His attention to details of costume, scenery and staging were no less meticulous than his delineation of scene and character and musicology. In opera, Verdi was the sole creator of a human universe that he explored with the depths of his own great character, and then presented to an appreciative world.
Let's take a look at some of the operas with parent-child themes in order of their composition. In "Louisa Miller" Verdi first broaches the father-daughter theme that will come to feature prominently in his later works. Louisa is put upon by a local noble and the freedom of her father is threatened. In a memorable duet, father and daughter pledge their love and devotion and vow to escape together to a land of freedom. "Louisa Miller" marks the beginning of the composer's transition into a wholly Verdian form, departing in this opera from the styles of Bellini and Donizetti who came before him.
Following "Louisa Miller", Verdi embarked on what many consider one of the crowning achievements of his musical career -- the glorious trilogy of masterworks that came one after the other -- "Rigoletto", "Il Trovatore" and "La Traviata". These works established Verdi as a completely new and unique voice never before heard in opera. Each opera was now clearly delineated with what he called a distinct "tinta" or emotional and musical tint. Unlike other composers, you would be hard put to place any aria or duet from one opera easily into another. They each have a distinct style and sound. It is a remarkable achievement that he managed to maintain the mood of a piece even when he reworked and rewrote operas many years later, as he did with works such as Simon Boccanegra.
In Rigoletto we have a rather unusual father-daughter situation. Rigoletto is a reviled and deformed man, shunned and mocked by society, and in possession of a cruel and mocking wit in his role as court jester to the Duke of Mantua's court. He is nevertheless portrayed as deeply human and selfless in his love for his only daughter, Gilda, whom he keeps isolated and under guard, protecting her from the lecherous reaches of the Duke's court. His love, of course, as so often happens with over-protective parental love, verges on the obessive, and in the end smothers the young Gilda, making her more curious about the outside world that she is not allowed to explore, and simultaneously more naive. As such, ironically, she becomes easy prey for the predations of the lecherous Duke, who having wooed her and won her love, has her abducted for his pleasure in the court.
Here Verdi pours his paternal heart into the poor hunchbacked father, whose love and aching paranoia mix into a lethal combination of possessiveness and revenge. And in the end, it is his lust for revenge that ends up inadvertantly causing the death of his own daughter. Verdi shows us that you can love something so much that you end up smothering it. Yet the scenes between father and daughter cannot fail to move the average operagoer, who perhaps is surprised to discover such deep feelings in a character he had expected to dislike.
Here too, Verdi shows us that he is a master of psychology and subtlety. Gilda is not entirely the innocent girl that we might expect in the character of a young and innocent girl. She is headstrong and rebellious. Time and again she goes against her father's wishes and meets with the Duke secretly. And even after she is abducted and raped, she continues to love and defend the Duke, and in the end even sacrifices her life to save his. Rigoletto for his part is also a complex character, neither entirely good nor entirely bad. His love for his daughter is in the end tragically thwarted by his own lust for revenge on the Duke. This is the first of Verdi's great trilogy, each with its distinct style, powerful dramatic effect and glorious musical expression.
From here, Verdi moved on to "Il Trovatore", an opera that has been consistently mocked as having a ridiculous libretto and story, and is typically mentioned as one of the more egregious offenders when it comes to operatic plotline excess. But even here, Verdi always manages to bring us distinctly realistic and dramatically human portraits in the midst of seemingly stock situations. In this opera he explored the mother-son relationship between Manrico the troubador, and his mother, the gypsy woman Azucena. Verdi actually had wanted to make the mezzo-soprano role of Azucena the primary female lead in this opera, relegating the romantic interest soprano to second-fiddle. Convention and pressure wouldn't allow him to do it, so he did the next best thing. He gave all the juicy and dramatic arias and duets to Azucena, and left the soprano to warble a few charming solos. But the emphasis is primarily on the love of Azucena for Manrico, even though it turns out he is her adopted son. (Her own son died when she accidentally, while in a frenzy of grief, threw him in the fire instead of Manrico, whom she had abducted as a form of revenge on Manrico's father. I told you the story sounds absurd.) Still, Verdi makes us care about these characters, and makes even these absurd sounding situations completely believable.
Even in "La Traviata" we find a father-daughter theme. Germont is the father of Rudolfo, the young impetuous man who falls in love with Violetta, a famous courtesan fatally ill with tuberculosis. Violetta and Rudolfo run off to the country together where they hope to escape the demands of society. Germont calls on Violetta one day, intending to confront her and demand that she give up his son. But when he meets her, he is struck by her noble manner and proud carriage. He realizes that he must use subtlety and appeal to her better nature in a fatherly way, rather than issuing threats. And so Verdi embarks on one of the most fascinating scenes in all of his operas, an extended duet, which is really more of a dramatic conversation of psychological persuasion, between the elder Germont and the stricken Violetta.
Germont probes Violetta's motivations and attacks her where she is most vulnerable. He appeals to her goodness and her selflessness, and points out the difficulties she will face, implying the eventual loss of interest which a young man must inevitably feel for an older woman. He appeals to her lost innocence by invoking the image of a young woman -- his daughter -- whose impending nuptuals are being threatened by the scandal involving her brother Rudolfo. And as the scene progresses, Verdi skillfully shows us that Germont cleverly plays the role of father to Violetta. In the end, just before she agrees to his demand that she renounce Rudolfo and leave him forever, she begs Germont to "embrace me as a daughter" one last time in order to give her the strength to go on without her love. The scene is one of unforgettable subtlety, power and building tragedy.
Verdi did not revisit the father-daughter bond in any great depth until his later opera, "Simon Boccanegra", which also features one of Verdi's most beautiful and emotionally powerful duets. Simon Boccanegra has always thought that his young daughter was lost while he was away on one of his many voyages, but as an aging Doge he suddenly discovers that the daughter of his onetime friend, and current rival, is in reality his own daughter. The emotional and musical highs of this recognition scene are nothing short of miraculous.
In the duet, Amelia Grimaldi relates to Boccanegra a secret of her life. She remembers being raised by an old woman and being visited by a seafaring man. She shows Boccanegra a locket bearing a portrait of her dead mother that the old lady had given her, Boccanegra produces an identical portrait -- she is Maria, his long-lost daughter. The tearful and joyful reunion is one of Verdi's most glorious creations, and cannot fail to move.
In the end, we can say that perhaps no other opera composer managed to explore the psychological depths of his characters in quite the way that Verdi was able to do. And no other composer plumbed the depths of the parent-child, particularly the father-daughter bond, with such compassion, insight and understanding. It is perhaps the deep well of loss in Verdi's own personal life that gave birth to such profound emotion. Whatever the impetus, it has given the world a legacy of love and music unequalled before or since.
There remains one final unwritten chapter in Verdi's exploration of the theme of fathers and daughters, one that contains a great mystery. Throughout most of Verdi's career he attempted on many occasions to broach the subject of perhaps the ultimate father-daughter drama -- that of "King Lear". Verdi loved Shakespeare and returned to the plays of the great English dramatist time and again, in works such as "Macbeth", "Otello" and "Falstaff". But "King Lear" always eluded him. He even had a scenario and libretto laid out for the great Lear, in four acts and eleven scenes, and reportedly worked on the opera on and off over a period of nearly fifty years. On several occasions the opera seems to have almost come to fruition, but something always seemed to get in the way of its competion. There is even speculation that some music was composed that eventually found its way into other operas, perhaps into the glorious reunion duet of Boccanegra and Maria. But the great "King Lear" lay unfinished to the end.
There has been much speculation as to the reason for Verdi's inability to apply himself to this deeply tragic story, a story that seemed to be made to order for him. In the end, he offered the libretto and scenario to Mascagni. According to Charles Osborne in his book, "The Complete Operas of Verdi", when Mascagni inquired as to the reason why Verdi himself had never composed it, "Verdi closed his eyes for a moment, perhaps to remember, perhaps to forget. Then softly and slowly he replied: 'The scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath terrified me." Verdi, who entered into the emotional lives of his creations so completely, perhaps feared the depths of tragedy that he would encounter.
Let me end with Charles Osborne's insightful penetration into this ultimate mystery:
The practical explanations why Verdi never wrote his Lear are all feasible. The psychical reason for his failure to attempt something he so clearly wanted to do is obscure. Perhaps, as he told Mascagni, he was terrified by Lear's madness. He himself was gloomy of temperament, neurotic and given to psychosomatic upsets. But, more likely, he was terrified by Lear's feeling for Cordelia. The father-daughter relationship had a special meaning and emphasis for him. Might not Lear have proved too overwhelming an exposition of it, or have led Verdi to too deep an exploration? My surmise is that, throughout his life, Verdi's subconscious protected him from Lear.