Great moments in opera: La Traviata

November 25, 2009

For this installment of “Great moments in opera” we turn to Verdi’s La Traviata.  This is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, but I confess that I have not known much about it apart from a few of the big numbers.  This week I listened to it again, paying some attention to the plot.  (The performance I listened to was Maria Callas’ live performance made in Lisbon in 1958, in a newly-surfaced mastering discussed here.  It is terrific!)

I am told that “la traviata” means something like “the fallen woman”. The story is about a love affair between a gallant and wealthy young man and a poor woman with a checkered past.  (Was she a prostitute?  It wasn’t quite clear to me.)  His father disapproves, and they are made to separate.  She dies in the end.  (I’m not giving much away.  Such deaths are de rigeur in opera.)  It is actually a fairly comprehensible plot, as these things go, and there is a real attempt to convey the emotional and psychological difficulty of the situation — not always the case in Italian opera.

The first Act of La Traviata is a tour de force.  Verdi gives us one hit after another: a superb prelude, a rousing opening chorus, and a wonderful opening duet for our heroes (the drinking song “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” [listen]).   The music goes from strength to strength, and the Act closes with one of the most famous of all soprano arias, “Sempre libera”.  At this point in the story our heroine, Violetta, is consumed with a kind of frantic madness, doomed, it seems to her, to a life of hedonism and fleeting pleasures, rather than a deep and abiding love.  Meanwhile Alfredo walks around off-stage singing of his love for her.

I found that the level of inspiration was not as high through the rest of the opera, with too much recitative.  This is almost unavoidable, since one has to tell a story, after all, and Verdi’s duller moments are not half so dull as, for instance, Wagner’s.  Things pick up again as the opera nears its completion, and there is a splendid final scene.

My favourite performance of “Sempre libera” is from an old recording made by Joan Sutherland.  I cannot find that audio online, but here is a good performance by Angela Gheorghiu, complete with subtitles.

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9 Responses to “Great moments in opera: La Traviata

  1. Giovanni Says:

    Craig,

    [WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS]

    yes, Act I on the surface is the most pleasing; but Act II, Scene I is the most dramatic, both lyrically and emotionally. It is the crux of the opera. When Violetta bids farewell to Alfredo and sings “Amami Alfredo”, this is one of, if not, THE MOST GUT-WRENCHING scene in all of Opera. I heard somewhere that at La Scala, the public always applauds at this point.

    Even Germont’s duet with Violetta contains a few memorable moments “Pura siccome un angelo”; “E’ grave il sacrifizio”; “Dite alla giovine”.

    And of course, there is Germont’s aria “Di Provenza il Mar il Suol”; one of the best Baritone arias ever written (my own grandfather’s favourite, I am told).

    And what about the gypsy dance and song?

    This opera is so loved by so many because we can identify in the situation and, to some extent, in the characters – a strong, passionate love, that alas, does not work out; or specifically, external forces prevent the relationship from continuing. Those that have been in this situation will completely understand the drama at hand. Verdi himself in his personal life found himself in this situation.

    Imagine being in love with someone after years of torment, and then, have that love taken away from you…what emotions does that bring out? How can these emotions be expressed on stage, lyrically? This is where Verdi shows his mastery. He can bring out with the right music, the right song, all these emotions with which the listener readily identifies. The climax to these emotions, of course comes in the episode I mention above, “Amami Alfredo”…here is a video…skip to minute 1:55.

    Below is the relevant translation after the point Alfredo comes in (this is where Violetta bids farewell to Alfredo): I think the music and the dialogue speak for themselves…I always get goose bumps at this point.

    –GF

    ALFREDO
    What are you doing?

    VIOLETTA
    (folding the letter)
    Nothing.

    ALFREDO
    You were writing?

    VIOLETTA
    (confused)
    Yes… no…

    ALFEDO
    Why are you confused?
    Who were you writing to?

    VIOLETTA
    To you.

    ALFREDO
    Give me the letter.

    VIOLETTA
    No, later.

    ALFREDO
    I’m sorry,
    There’s something worrying me.

    VIOLETTA
    (getting up)
    What is it?

    ALFREDO
    My father’s arrived…

    VIOLETTA
    Have you seen him?

    ALFREDO
    No.
    But he left me an angry letter.
    I shall wait for him.
    He’ll love you when he sees you.

    VIOLETTA
    (in great agitation)
    Don’t let him find me here…
    Let me go…
    You can calm him down…
    (near to tears)
    I’ll throw myself at his feet,
    Hw won’t want any part of us anymore.
    We shall be happy,
    Because you love me, Alfredo,
    Don’t you?

    ALFREDO
    So very much, but why are you crying?

    VIOLETTA
    I felt like crying
    But I am better now.
    (controlling herself)
    You see… I’m smiling… you see?
    I’m all right now…
    I’m smiling,
    I shall be there among the flowers,
    Always near to you.
    Love me Alfredo,
    Love me as I love you!
    Farewell!
    (She runs out to the garden.)

  2. Nick Milne Says:

    When I saw “Great moments in opera: Verdi…” I hoped against hope that it would be the triumphant, unexpected and horrifying return of Radames from the fields of battle in Aida, or the famed “Va’, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” from the third act of Nabucco, but this is good too.

    I’ll read as many of these posts as you choose to publish, in any event.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thank you very much, Giovanni, for your comments. You clearly know this music much better than I do, and I really appreciate your insight and enthusiasm. I agree with you that Verdi conveys real human feeling in this opera. I still find that, in general, opera retains a feeling of artificiality that prevents my really getting involved in the story, but this is at least partly because I am not Italian.

    Have you seen Zeffirelli’s film version of La Traviata, with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo singing the lead roles? I watched it, and I thought it was excellent. I wonder why more operas are not filmed that way.

    Nick, I am trying to listen to one opera each week for the next few months, so there will be a few more “Great moments in opera” posts if I can find the time to write them. Aida is on my list, but Nabucco is not. I agree, though, that “Va, pensiero” is a wonderful chorus.

  4. Adam Hincks Says:

    I saw a number of productions at the Metropolitan Opera when I was living in NJ, and La Traviata was my favourite. I’ve had the Zeffirelli film recommended to me before: a clear sign I should see it. Have you seen Bergman’s Magic Flute? I saw it recently and found it quite good.

  5. cburrell Says:

    It is good to hear from you again, Adam. Thank you for your comment. I have not seen, nor even known about, Bergman’s film, but I have now added it to my list.

  6. Giovanni Says:

    Craig,

    I agree some opera stories are way too artificial to bring out the human emotion: I feel this way about “Il Trovatore”. Some amazing arias there, but the story is just too unbelievable.

    Yes I have seen Zeffirelli’s version of La Traviata. Very, very good. Also watch Zefirelli’s stage production of Turandot and film of Tosca, filmed the times and places in Rome where the action takes place. A 2000 TV film of La Traviata with Jose Cura and Eteri Gvazava is also pretty good.

    I strongly recommend you listen to “La Forza del Destino”, but the original version premiered at St Petersburg. Great music, but disturbing message.

    “Va pensiero” is the unofficial Italian national anthem. It is also the “national” anthem of the self-proclaimed separatist state of “Padania” (northern Italy); but that is another story.

    –Giovanni

  7. cburrell Says:

    I just listened to Il Trovatore! It is odd that half — or maybe more than half — of the story takes place before the opera begins. Verdi tries to fill it in with a “talking heads” scene, but the structural problem remains. I like the idea of a revenge plot, though. Plenty of room for high drama.

    I hadn’t thought of putting La Forza del Destino on my list, but I will now. But I can’t listen only to Verdi! I also intend to listen through Wagner (I know, I know), Mozart, Puccini, and some of the bel canto operas. Also Janacek and Strauss (I know, I know). Maybe even some Handel, if I feel I need a break from interesting stories.

  8. Nick Milne Says:

    But I can’t listen only to Verdi!

    Sure you can! It will put you head and shoulders above about six billion people, in an aesthetic sense. Don’t be afraid.

    JOIN US

  9. operaprince Says:

    surely the greatest moment of this opera must be Violetta’s expansive “Ah m’ami Alfredo” of Act II


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