Mary Jane Phillips-Matz has performed an astonishing feat of scholarship in this long and painstakingly detailed biography. It is based almost entirely on original documents. In research that began more than thirty years ago, Phillips-Matz lived in Verdi’s hometown of Busseto and became a trusted confidant of many families whose connections with Verdi, either as friends or colleagues, were only a generation away. She has searched parish registers, municipal rolls, and private and public archives in order to get at the truth about the many discrepancies between what Verdi said and wrote about his own life and what the documents reveal.
The biography, however, does not always make pleasant reading. Verdi was an irascible man, given to lashing out at others, especially in his correspondence, over every perceived slight, however small. He was certainly not easy to live with, which makes the story of Giuseppina Strepponi, his mistress and later his wife, a sad one. (“Horses are like women; they have to please the man who owns them” Verdi once remarked.) Verdi’s relations with his family were also tempestuous. At one point, after a bitter quarrel, he broke off all relations with his parents, even evicting them from the farmhouse he owned at Sant’Agata.
This massive work includes detailed analysis of the composition and production history of Verdi’s operas, although it does not include any discussion of the music or the themes. The general reader may find himself supplied with more details about the day-to-day events in Verdi’s personal and professional life than he really would care to know, but for those with a serious interest in Verdi, it is hard to imagine that there will ever be another biography to match this one.