A debut biographical novel tells the story of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Growing up the son of tavern keepers in the village of Le Roncole in the Duchy of Parma, young Giuseppe is known as “Carlo’s Old Man” for his solemn demeanor. (Carlo is his father.) Displaying an early gift for musical composition, Giuseppe plays the organ at the local church, though his creativity is not always encouraged. The aspirational Carlo connects his young son with Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy local patron, whose daughter, Margherita, becomes the object of Giuseppe’s affection. Barezzi arranges for Giuseppe’s musical education in Milan, which leads to composition work and, eventually, to operas. As Giuseppe’s star begins to rise in the world of music, his homeland starts to bubble with a somewhat fantastic notion: an independent, unified Kingdom of Italy. Giuseppe’s work becomes associated with the movement, though the contrarian composer isn’t thrilled by it: “He struggled with his growing association with Italian unification and he made an effort to absolve himself of this label by dedicating the music to” Austrian Duchess Marie Louise of Parma “at a performance.” Even so, Giuseppe’s destiny is linked to that of his homeland: He will become one of his country’s most beloved men as well as one of the most celebrated opera composers in history. Writing in a precise, detailed prose, Mitchell brings warmth and wit to Verdi’s story. (When his mentor says, at one point, “I have some good news right here,” Verdi quips in response, “The Austrians have put a moratorium on practicing fugues?”) Whereas other volumes of the Mentoris Project (“a series of novels and biographies about the lives of great Italians and Italian-Americans”) have felt rather wooden, Mitchell has managed to enliven the life of Verdi by fleshing out the characters and truly dramatizing the events. Similarly, the author celebrates his subject’s flaws in a way that keeps the book from reading like a hagiography. Though it does not rise quite to the level of literary fiction, this novel is an enjoyable and highly informative portrait of Verdi that should please opera fans and foes alike.
A humane and humorous tale that follows Verdi’s musical development.