INKPOT#61 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: PUCCINI Turandot. Nilsson/Tebaldi/Tozzi/Bjoerling/Rome Opera/Leinsdorf (RCA Living Stereo)
The Fallen Woman or The Woman Gone Astray (1852-3)An Opera in 3 acts by GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)
Libretto by Piave, based on Dumas’ La Dame aux camlia
An Ink-troduction by Ng Yeuk Fan
Some will perhaps remember the Raymond Weill advertisement for its range of luxury watches, “Traviata”, launched in the late 80s or early 90s. I remember sitting in the movie theatres and watching these bejeweled watches float past on the screen, dancing to an extremely fascinating tune. Now, recalling it, I know it is the Prelude from the opera La Traviata.
In many ways, La Traviata represented Verdi’s maturation from his earlier operas. Stylistic measures, musical and theatrical devices are a sure gauge that the composer had abandoned the flowery and structured presentation of his earlier operas like Nabucco (1842) and Attila (1846), creating and contributing to the so called post-Rossinian tradition. In doing so, operas in the second period of Verdis creative prowess reflect an increase in the number of subtle ideas, each more mature and connected; characters take on increased particularization and the resulting dramatic density benefiting from the looser structure.
Verdi also had more time, now that he was more comfortably settled in his life, to take more trouble with his operas and the results speak for themselves in terms of greater correlation between the music and the drama. Further, all of the operas belonging to his second period contain more than two hours of music while maintaining a relative economy on the use of main themes and melodies. Verdi was able to fully develop, and had the daring to rely on his development of musical ideas to carry the plot, something unheard of in Meyerbeer, for example.
Take the Prelude for example. The descending chords of a reduced 1st and 2nd violins divisi conjures the image of a woman full of fragility and dying from consumption (tuberculosis). The descent aided by the diminishing phrase lengths, four, three, and two bars, likewise hint towards a decline. At the twelfth bar, the 1st violins change to a rising figure that conjures up piercing sadness. The main melody presents Violetta in all her charm. Embellishments at the top of the stave enhance the portrayal of the coquettish woman in her frivolous lifestyle. The return of the cellos on the repeated descending figures further acts as a reminder of this doom. The two, superimposed, then works its way to a dying pianissimo final cadence.
On hindsight, I wonder what has happened to the range of watches launched by Raymond Weill. [Haven’t heard of it since its launch.]
The Story of La Traviata
After the prelude, we are catapulted into the story of Violetta Valery, which in Act 1, opens with significant flourish at what appears to be a party in the house of Violetta. An informed friend of mine tells me that it is actually a bordello – a place where upper-class gentlemen can legitimately flirt and pick up women. Violetta Valery is the demi-mondaine – the most sought-after courtesan of her day. Under the care of Baron Duphol, she leads a lavish lifestyle of nightly banquets and parties.
In her own bordello, she is introduced to Alfredo Germont, whom, she is told, had called at her residence to inquire about her every single day when she was ill. Jealously, Baron Duphol refuses to lead the Brindisi; the duty then falls on Alfredo (quite unexpectedly) who proceeds to wish Violetta the eternal beauty of Hebe, a Greek goddess in the famous drinking song, “Libiam ne’ lieti calici”. As the guest leave to attend a band performance/dance in another room, Violetta stumbles twice – an indication of her poor health and impending doom. She tells her friends to go ahead and that she would follow. Alfredo takes this opportunity to stay behind and with some tentativeness expresses his love for the courtesan in the aria “Un di’, felice, eterea”. Violetta expresses surprise and brushes off his love with a notion that she can never know love, for she lives for the joys of the moment. However, she gives Alfredo a flower and tells him to visit her when the flower fades. Alfredo asks when that will be and Violetta replies:”Tomorrow” .
Alfredo leaves in happiness and Violetta launches into her big aria for Act I: ” strano! strano!” … “Ah, fors’ lui che l’anima” … “Follie! follie delirio vano questo!” … “Sempre libera”. In it, she expresses disbelief at such a proposition – the possibility of love for a downcast woman. In true “mad scene” proportions, her finale towards the end of Act I is filled with difficult vocal ‘pyro’-techniques and embellishments. Encompassing many emotions, Verdi skillfully juxtaposes Alfredos voice (sung offstage) in a repeat of the slancio “Di quell’amor ch’ palpito” to indicate some sort of hallucination, or the state of being haunted by his (Alfredo’s) words in Violettas big finale. This segment is perhaps the most effective of all in Italian opera.
Act II, Scene 1 begins in a newly furnished country house where the lovers Alfredo and Violetta have been, after exchanging vows of love, living happily for some months already. Alfredo sings about the joys of his love but is interrupted by Annina (Violettas personal maid) who had been instructed to arrange for the sale of Violettas personal belongings to pay for their expensive lifestyle. In a fit of angry sadness, Alfredo launches into an unlikely aria “O mio rimorso” – the closest to a heroic aria for the primo tenore; before leaving in haste to make arrangements that will prevent her from making such a sacrifice.
Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont arrives to ask Violetta to leave him. Germont announces his purpose of visiting without much ceremony or respect for the woman whom he thinks has ruined his son. He is however, taken aback by her cultivation and nobility. He is further convinced when she sees the notes of sales that Violetta has arranged of her property. Nevertheless, he does not change his purpose and hopes that Violetta will persuade Alfredo to return to his side. In so doing, his other daughter, whose marriage to a respectable family has been imperiled by Alfredos ignomous liaison, may hence proceed. Violetta agrees with superhuman sacrifice here, exchanging the last days of life and love for self-denial in deference to Alfredos sister.
After she has advised Germont to hide (so that he may be present to comfort Alfredo after her departure), she sits to write a letter for Alfredo, but is interrupted by his return. Violetta launches into a complicated mix of uncontrollable emotions leading to the climax in which she calls for Alfredo to love her forever. She then leaves. Still bewildered, but obviously amused by Violettas actions, Alfredo receives a letter stating Violettas departure to her old ways – he is devastated. Germont reappears and persuades Alfredo to return home in the very beautiful aria “Di Provenza il mar, il suol”. Alfredo finds an invitation to a bordello on Violettas table and, convinced that Violetta would be there, rushes off to find her.
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DECCA 448 119-2 (full-price) – Gheorghiu/Lopardo/Nucci. Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Georg Solti
Act II Scene 2 opens in the bordello of Flora Berviox, a courtesan and friend of Violetta’s. A gypsy dance and a matador fight is put up by the guests for entertainment. Violetta and Alfredo arrive in turn amidst rumours that they have left each other. Alfredo wins consecutively at the gambling table and muses on the words that he is “lucky at cards but unlucky in love”. Violetta tries to persuade Alfredo to leave the party and doing so is forced to lie that she now loves the Baron. In a fit of anger, Alfredo disgraces Violetta in front of the guests. Germont arrives and chides his son for his ungentlemanly behaviour, while the Baron challenges Alfredo to a duel.
Act III: With reduced strings, the curtains open to reveal a stage with dimmed lighting and the ailing Violetta lying in her deathbed. She has been sick and having sold her possessions earlier, now lives in poverty. Dr. Grenvil arrives to see her and informs Annina that she only has hours to live. Violetta picks up a letter written by Germont informing her that Alfredo, having won the duel with the Baron will return soon to her side; further, he shall be honoured to return and embrace her as a daughter. Violetta laments that they have yet to come and that it is all too late now.
Annina enters with agitated happiness and tries to prepare Violetta to receive the happy news, but Violetta guesses what it is immediately and rushes into the arms of Alfredo who appears at the doorway at this moment. They sing about love and promises not to leave each other again. Violetta decides to go to church to give thanks. She tries to get up but is unable. Alfredo orders Annina to get Dr. Grenvil but Violetta says that “if Alfredos return cannot make her well, nothing will”. Germont arrives and with great remorse sings of his regrettable actions of the past. Violetta gives Alfredo a medallion bearing her portrait and encourages him to marry if a pure-hearted lady should fall in love with him in the future, and that he should give the medallion to her and tell her that a woman in heaven will be praying for them. She then feels a resurgence of life and after an orchestral climax, she falls back senseless. Dr. Grenvil announces her death while Alfredo cries out her name.
History and Conception of La Traviata – “A Subject of Our Age!”
The first performance of La Traviata was at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice, on 6th March 1853. The libretto is adapted by Francesco Maria Piave from Alexandre Dumas filss play La Dame aux camlias.
This play was further an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical account of the love-life of its author Dumas (above/left). At the age of 19, he was the lover of the most sought-after and famous courtesan of her day, Alphonsine Plessis. It is perhaps a twist of fate that they had met at the theatre – where Mme Plessis eyes, roving and searching the crowds in the stalls through her opera glasses and receiving the half-hidden glances and greetings of young well-to-do gentlemen, had thus become aquainted with Dumas; a book (1845), a theatre scipt (1852) and an opera (1853) later, Mme Plessis had become immortalised in the character of Violetta Valery through the music of Verdi.
There are critical differences between the real life drama of Mme Plessis and that of our heroine tonight – Violetta. It is recorded that Mme Plessis, refusing to give up her lavish lifestyle (as well as the other men in her life), caused the financial collapse of Alexandre Dumas. Further, it was the writer who had initiated a seperation – as it were, having awaken from the stormy affair. It is not surprising hence to find, in a very Freudian way, that Dumas chose to represent Marguerite as a much purer woman in his book – one who pawns her belongings so as not to become a burden to her lover – Armand Duval. Dumas further romanticizes and idealised the philantrophic courtesan and propels her into heroic proportions through not only her early death – that as it were punishes and purges the sins of her reprobate lifestyle – but also in her act of superhuman sacrifice in which she trades her last days of happiness in deference to the marriage of Duvals sister.
This is the version that Verdi (right, in 1870) found favour with. Verdi had said in a letter to Piave, that he had “found the subject matter fit for their (our) age”. Dumas’ moralizing aim is thus preserved in Verdis La Traviata – “Though God should show His mercy, man will never forgive her.”
In Singapore, this set is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), or HMV (The Heeren).
295: 20.9.98; up.21.3.1999 Ng Yeuk Fan
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