Even if you’ve never stepped into a concert hall in your life, you’ve almost certainly heard something written by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. That catchy tenor aria that’s been stuck in your head since you heard it playing at that Italian restaurant two weeks ago? Probably “La donne è mobile,” from Verdi’s "Rigoletto." That Super Bowl commercial with the overdramatic chorus punctuated by massive thwacks on the bass drum? Definitely the “Dies Irae” from his “Messa da Requiem.” And that one opera you went to 10 years ago with the convoluted plot that you couldn’t quite keep straight? Odds are pretty good that was Verdi, too.
Verdi: The Man Revealed, a new biography by John Suchet, is just what its title proclaims: an attempt to uncover the man behind the art that has become such an indelible part of the fabric of Western music and popular culture.
Since his death in 1901, Verdi has comfortably enjoyed a seat at or near near the top of the pantheon of 19th-century composers whose works continue to be the bread and butter of opera companies all over the world. Even today, Verdi’s 27 operas include some of the most performed in houses across the globe. Such megahits as "Aida," "Il trovatore," and "La traviata" continue to sell out theaters over a century after their respective premieres.
But despite his fame among operaphiles, Verdi is not, perhaps, the household name he once was. Opera, particularly in the United States, all too often gets the short end of the stick in popular media, frequently perceived as elitist or simply hopelessly out of touch with modern audiences (a discussion for another time). And Verdi, the undisputed master of Italian opera, has suffered a measure of obscurity as a result, even as his music continues to permeate the collective subconscious of popular culture in the US.
Suchet plays both sides of this paradox of familiarity in “The Man Revealed.” On more than one occasion, he discusses the fraught compositional process of an unnamed opera before dramatically revealing the work’s title just before the end of the chapter, a fun little plot twist for those already familiar with Verdi’s oeuvre. But despite Easter eggs like these for the already initiated, the biography is not really written for aficionados.
Primarily, “The Man Revealed” is as an introduction to Verdi, as a man rather than as a composer, taking great pains not to get bogged down in boring details or obscure music theory. The biography is full of humorous anecdotes, observations calculated to keep operatic neophytes interested. Also helpful in this regard are the dozens of illustrations and photographs of people, places, and objects with significance to Verdi’s life that can be found throughout the book, along with a generous peppering of quotes from letters and diary entries that reveal Verdi as a human being from his farming obsession to his chronic hypochondria.
The informality of the text, however, does leave “The Man Revealed” open to some criticism. This is by no means a definitive biography of Verdi; it contains far too much speculation and trimming of historical context for that. In fairness to Suchet, any indulgence in speculation is clearly marked; local legends of Verdi’s illegitimate children and love affairs, for instance, are never presented as historical fact, even if Suchet clearly relishes the presentation of such tantalizing historical possibilities to his readers.
Suchet, it should be mentioned, is not primarily a historian. He is mostly known for his work as a radio journalist and host with Classic FM, a music station in the United Kingdom with the mission of sharing classical music “with the widest possible audience, no matter who they are or where they are,“ according to their website. Outside the UK, they are known primarily for their Buzzfeed-style quizzes, articles, and other web content all focused around classical music and opera, making them one of the most wide-reaching online presences in the online classical music community, particularly among young musicians and enthusiasts.
Clearly Suchet’s biography is clearly written in the same spirit displayed by his employer, with its strong emphasis on accessibility and excitement over dry historical musings about Verdi’s place in the canon of Western music that one might expect of a biography about a "great artist."
This is a book meant to stoke enthusiasm, ideal for someone who has seen a Verdi opera or two and wants to know more. As I read the book, I found myself enthusiastically revisiting "Rigoletto" after reading about Verdi’s struggles with Austrian censors, and re-listening to his "Requiem"after reading passages about that Mass’s original soprano, Teresa Stolz, and her scandalous relationship with the composer.
Verdi, a very private man, might not have approved of such details showing up in his official biography. But I have to imagine that he, as the composer of many a crowd-pleasing melodrama, would take Suchet’s biography over a dusty, academic history of his life any day of the week.