From the Conductor: La traviata

Jan 22, 2024

Violetta, the Noble Heart of La traviata

La traviata is the only Verdi opera that takes place entirely indoors. How aesthetically fitting for a work of art that explores with startling detail the interior of the human heart. There is an intimacy about La traviata that is unique in nearly all the operatic literature. To spend time within the lovingly drawn confines of this great masterpiece, even if for the umpteenth time, is to make vulnerable one’s own heart and sympathies to the ecstasy, nobility, fragility and despair that attend the path of truly sacrificial love.

It is, of course, the character of Violetta who is the center of our fascination and affection in this drama that inspired Verdi’s highly personal and endearing portrayal. After the very first bars of the prelude hint at the frail and tenuous state of her health, Verdi unveils a melody that gives us the full measure of her goodness and beauty of character. This is the same music that returns in the second act with heartbreaking potency when she sings, "Amami, Alfredo, quanto io t'amo." “Love me Alfredo, as much as I love you.”

As the first act develops, we are struck, more than anything else, by Violetta’s worldly wisdom and determined independence. Verdi encapsulates her faux joie de vivre in iconic fashion in the great aria and cabaletta that end the act, "Ah, fors’è lui...Sempre libera," but not before the composer plants a seed—almost an idée fixe—that alters her initial convictions and eventually resonates with her to the very last moment of her life. It is the expansive lyric melody with which Alfredo expresses his love for her, “a love which is the very breath of the universe itself, mysterious and noble, both the pain and ecstasy of the heart.” She, herself, sings these words and this melody when she is alone; Alfredo sings it insistently like a troubadour outside her window; and in the last act Verdi gives it to a solo violin with devastating emotional effect in extremis. (Puccini does something similar in the last act of La bohème, when the orchestra alone plays a heart-rending reprise of "Che gelida manina" as Rodolfo and Mimì embrace in silence just moments before the tragic conclusion of that beloved opera).

The great centerpiece of La traviata is the Act II duet between Violetta and Germont. It is nothing short of astounding what Verdi achieves in this complex and poignant conversation between these characters whose priorities and worldviews could not be more diametrically opposed. Reading the libretto alone, without the music, one could perhaps be inclined to find it dramatically implausible. Yet with staggering compositional craftsmanship Verdi unfolds a complex structure that mixes recitative, arioso, cantabile bel-canto melody, and searing pathos to create a devastating dramatic arc. By the end of the duet nearly all of Violetta’s emotions have been challenged and abused. We are dumbstruck by her strength of character, and Germont, whose base and manipulative insinuations she has had to endure, is left with a subdued feeling of guilt and gratitude as he’s come to understand the reality and depth of her love for his son.

The music that opens the last act of the opera is often referred to as a prelude, but Verdi didn’t see it that way. From the opening bars that recall the first sounds of the opera, Violetta is there, dying, as the strings in the orchestra sing a song of almost unbearable desperate beauty. This music is Violetta, personifying her sublime goodness and profound suffering with some of Verdi’s most profound music. The simplicity of her aria, "Addio del passato" (“Farewell, happy dreams of the past”), is a creation of utter perfection, with Verdi employing the doleful strains of a solo oboe to convey the futility and hopelessness of her attenuating existence.
The return of Alfredo offers temporary hope, but the inevitability of Violetta’s demise cannot be avoided. As she approaches the end, we hear in the orchestra the same rhythmic death march that accompanies Leonora’s "Miserere" as she stands outside the prison where Manrico awaits his death sentence in Il trovatore. As the solo violin plays the familiar love motif for the last time, Violetta experiences a moment of ecstasy as she utters her final words, “O, joy!”

From a musician’s point of view, it is amazing to observe that Verdi achieves such tailor-made specificity of characterization with so many of the same musical techniques and structural methods that we find in Rigoletto (1851) and Il trovatore (1853), the two operas that were written at almost the same time as La traviata (1853). For example, Alfredo’s second-act cabaletta has virtually the same fiery orchestral accompaniment as Manrico’s "Di quella pira" in Il trovatore. Yet the dramatic atmosphere of the two operas could not be more distant from each other. The same recitative-arioso techniques that mark Violetta and Germont’s duet, as well as the beginning of the last act, find themselves on full display in Rigoletto. The point is that Verdi didn’t require novelty or exotic innovation to further his aesthetic purposes. There is a sincerity and almost willful restraint to his compositional procedures that infallibly serve the purposes of the drama and illuminate the human depth of his characters. Nowhere is the heart of a composer more plainly laid bare than in the sublime heart of Violetta.

Steven White

Steven White has lead numerous Opera Omaha productions, including Rigoletto, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Così fan tutte, Faust, Eugene Onegin and Le nozze di Figaro. This season he will conduct Thaïs at Utah Opera and will return to the Metropolitan Opera for Turandot. Mr. White made his acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut in 2010, conducting performances of La traviata starring Angela Gheorghiu. Since then, he has conducted Metropolitan Opera performances with such stars as Placido Domingo, Natalie Dessay, Thomas Hampson, and Dmitri Hvorostovksy. Highlights from within the last year include Ariadne auf Naxos at Arizona Opera, and Anna Bolena at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Last season he made his debut with an award-winning production of Lalla-Roukh at the Wexford Festival and conducted the Verdi Requiem and the Britten War Requiem at Opera Roanoke, where he has been the Artistic Director since 2004.

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