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Verdi: Exploring the Italian hometown of a musical genius
In Busseto, the music of its most famous son echoes about every quarter
After a Wagner overload at the opulent annual festival devoted to the composer in Bayreuth, Germany, it was good to come to Busseto, Italy, for a little Verdi appreciation.
In the year celebrating the 200th birthday of both musical geniuses, it seemed fitting to visit these two towns intimately associated with them.
It turned out, however, that the contrast between Bayreuth and Busseto couldn't have been more striking.
Bayreuth was the baroque court of a minor German prince, the Margrave of Bayreuth, and still feels like it.
Little Busseto is a market town with one main street and a square.
Whereas Wagner came to Bayreuth at the peak of his fame to build an opera house in his own honor, Verdi came to Busseto as a talented but penniless boy.
The Italian composer had walked there from nearby Le Roncole, the village of his birth, because a local music lover had a piano that Verdi had been invited to play.
Apart from some urban sprawl on its outskirts, Busseto today looks remarkably the same as when Giuseppe Verdi arrived in 1824.
Its low defensive walls and gates are gone, but its streets follow the same Renaissance grid.
There are some big houses and even a palazzo or two, but these are discreetly hidden behind colonnades that line Via Roma, the main street.
The only ostentatiously impressive building is the 16th-century Palazzo Pallavincino, with its moat and baroque gatehouse, lying halfway between the railway station and the town proper.
The ancient family of Pallavincino held the old castle in Busseto (it now contains an opera house) but in the 18th century they moved out here, to moated splendor beyond the defensive walls.
Whether its former occupants would have appreciated the irony is uncertain, but the mighty Pallavincinos’ palace is now a museum (Via Ferdinando Provesi 35; + 39 0524 930 039) devoted to Verdi, an innkeeper’s son.
Halfway along Via Roma on the stands Palazzo Orlandi, where Verdi composed his opera “Rigoletto.” A big sign on the doors reads “Vendesi.” (For sale)
The locals lament that you can’t even go in to look around; some claim it’s falling apart.
Given that Verdi came back to live here after the success of his breakthrough opera “Nabucco,” it’s a shame not more is made of the house.
On the town square, it’s a different story. Casa Barezzi is where the young Verdi came to play music.
Today his piano overlooks Piazza Verdi.
It was here that the lanky, dark-haired 17-year-old gave his first public performance, in 1830.
Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy merchant, not only was Verdi’s first patron but also soon became his father-in-law when his daughter fell in love with the young musician.
The salon is lofty and spacious for such a small town. Had the adolescent Verdi ever seen anything as grand?
The adjoining rooms are taken up with display cases full of drawings, paintings and photographs of Verdi. There's a fascinating display of portraits of nearly every singer who played a major operatic Verdi role.
Another section commemorates conductors who have performed at Busseto’s Teatro Verdi (Piazza Giuseppe Verdi 10; +39 0524 92487) with the batons they've donated. Placido Domingo has pride of place.
Theater of honor
In 1868, to honor the man they were calling the “Swan of Busseto,” the people of his hometown didn’t just rename their theater after Verdi, they tore it apart and rebuilt it in a much more opulent style, with a royal box, smoking room and private salon where sopranos could serenade affluent gentlemen from a high balcony.
A mythological ceiling was painted in the auditorium with a cherub holding up the word “Verdi” to the Muse of Music.
Verdi was said to have been furious when he heard that the building he had loved was being destroyed in his name, but in the end he gave money to help complete the project.
The auditorium is a lovely, delicate red and white structure of boxes on three tiers.
Franco Zeffirelli staged “Aida” here in 2001 to mark the centenary of Verdi’s death.
The production is still talked about in the town because of the way Zeffirelli transcended the restrictions of the tiny stage.
I spent the night in a hotel (next to the old castle) built in 1999 by the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi when he retired to Busseto. He named it “I Due Foscari” (Piazza Carlo Rossi 15; + 39 0524 930039; rooms from €86/$114) after one of the operas that gave Verdi his name.
Resembling a dark palazzo on the Grand Canal, the hotel is now run by Bergonzi’s son, Marco. There are pictures of Verdi on every wall, even in my bedroom.
There had been high hopes for the bicentenary this autumn, but while I was in Busseto plans were floundering. Italy’s recent economic problems mean there's no money to mount a suitable production in October.
At the moment it sounds as if only Wagner will be making a big noise in 2013.
Where to stay in Busseto
Hotel Ristorante Bar Bistrot Sole, Piazza Giacomo Matteotti 10; +39 (0) 524 930 011; rooms from €90 ($120)
Agriturismo Il Bosso, Via Traversante Passera 1, Busseto; +39 (0) 338 5967 038; rooms from €60 ($80)
Where to eat in Busseto
Trattoria Verdi, Viale Pallavicino, 21; +39 (0) 524 91610/91352; modern bar/trattoria
Cafè Pizzosteria Palazzo Orlandi, Via Roma, 60; +39 (0 )524 91523; snack bar beneath palazzo where Verdi lived
Ristorante La Casa Nuova, 59 v. Consolatico Superiore; +39 (0) 524 97817; rural fare
Salumeria Sapori Della Bassa Di Belli Maria Cristin, Via Balestra 2; +39 (0) 524 931133; delicatessen near church where Verdi was married
Salsamenteria Storica Verdiana Baratta, Via Roma 76; +39 (0) 524 91066; Verdi-themed delicatessen