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.