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Reviewed by:
  • Verdi, Opera, Women by Susan Rutherford
  • Francesca Vella (bio)
Susan Rutherford. Verdi, Opera, Women. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Xii, 293 pages.

I do not want to hear that Annetta is unwell! She has to stay in good health; both of you have to! … You need, so to speak, to shore up each other in order not to stumble on the rough terrain of life. Annetta should take care, and so should you, dear Peppina. Remember that you are necessary to each other, since you are tied and directed to one and the same end, morally, religiously, and socially!

Such is the epistolary comfort tendered by one Peppina to another: Giuseppina Strepponi Verdi writing to Giuseppina Negroni Prati Morosini.1 Strepponi's lines offer but a glimpse of her many letters, which, for what they often tell us about Verdi the man, as well as for the sheer poignancy of the language and sentiments that pervade them, deserve a critical edition in their own right. The former soprano and lifelong companion of Verdi is here expressing her vision of a particular relationship between sisters: one characterized by mutual, steady support through life's hardships, and one especially close-knit, since Annetta and Giuseppina Morosini had long lived together. There is a note of melancholy, perhaps, in Strepponi's words; a longing for a confidente she might herself have missed in the solitude of Verdi's and her villa at Sant'Agata. But there is also, and more importantly, a closing declaration of sisterly union and interdependence. This final idea insinuates an almost "natural" mission—moral, social, and religious—into the two women's existences, an inevitability about the courses their lives will take that jars with our modern belief in the self-determination of the individual (both male and female). These words of Strepponi may be harder for us to sympathize with; yet ultimately they also hint at a familial or even broader humanity that may still appeal to our present, more emancipated sensibilities.

Many are the themes and human relationships scrutinized by Susan Rutherford in Verdi, Opera, Women—sisterhood, owing to its lack of operatic treatment, is one of the few that falls outside the project. Rutherford's book was inspired by the award of the biannual "Giuseppe Verdi" International Prize of the Parma Rotary Club and has resulted in an extremely rich survey of sentiments and experiences that formed part of the life of nineteenth-century women (with a focus on Italy). [End Page 184] Rutherford—author of the prize-winning The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815–1930—explores her topic by navigating the space between fictional, representational, and real worlds (23). Hence, as she states, the "women" in her title "refer not only to Verdi's female characters but to the singers who realised them on stage and the spectators who watched and listened in the auditorium" (22). The titles of her seven chapters immediately conjure up the bare bones of contemporary discourses and codes of womanhood. War, Prayer, Romance, Sexuality, Marriage, Death, Laughter: so varied and so encompassing is the framework within which nineteenth-century femininity was negotiated, at least as it resonated on and with Verdi's operatic stage. The order of the chapters only partly reflects developing topoi in Verdi's oeuvre. War inevitably focuses on the composer's 1840s operas (except for Rutherford's discussion of Les Vêpres siciliennes), populated as they are with women inspiring men to action, coming to their rescue or taking part in physical combat (ispiratrici, salvatrici, and guerriere, as Rutherford dubs them). On the other hand, the operatic stimulus to the final chapter, Laughter, is found in Falstaff. Among other things, its female quartet—Alice, Meg, Nannetta, and Mistress Quickly—provides the input for a compelling (if brief) sociological investigation of the factors that hindered nineteenth-century female friendship. Overall, however, Rutherford eschews any work-centered approach. This is all to her advantage: it allows her greater scope in traversing the changing life-worlds and operatic representations of women throughout Verdi's half century (with flashes backwards and forwards).

The second chapter, Prayer, revisits a number of religious utterances by female characters...


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