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Thursday, July 9, 2015

What to Listen for in LA TRAVIATA - Act I

John Baril
Conductor, La Traviata
For our 2015 Opera Insider (Festival Resource Guide), we asked John Baril, Central City Opera’s Music Director and Conductor for La Traviata, to write about some of the musical themes and devices Giuseppe Verdi employed in this opera and what to listen for.  Here are his thoughts:

La traviata begins with an orchestral prelude that conveys Violetta’s story, but in reverse chronological order. Sixteen solo violins play in 4-part harmony the music that is heard at the outset of Act III and which is associated with her death. Next, accompanied by “oom-pah-pah,” very typical of the period, is her tune “Amami, Alfredo,” which we’ll hear in the middle of Act II, scene 1, just before she leaves him. Lastly, this tune is repeated without the “oom-pah-pah,” now replaced with very delicate ornamentation, especially in the first violins, that is depictive of Act I. The tune is played in a lower, more somber octave by clarinet, bassoon, and ‘celli. [The violoncello (plural violoncelli) instrument is more commonly known in its abbreviated form: cello.]

Il trovatore (“the troubadour”) premiered less than two months before La traviata; not surprisingly, there are unmistakable musical resemblances between the two; the orchestration of the gypsies and matadors in Act II, scene 2 springs instantly to mind. Yet the two couldn’t be more different—a testament to Verdi’s skill. Trovatore seems to stand out for its boldness and public displays; the characters are bigger than life and even the intimate moments are set in cold, dreadful locales. Traviata, on the other hand, even in the opening scene and at Flora’s party, seems desperately intimate. The party music which opens the opera, ravishingly urbane, suddenly becomes chamber music, with only 4 violins, 2 violas, one ‘cello and bass accompanying the private conversations. Another tutti outburst followed by the “chamber music,” but in a different key, is followed by the most famous music, the Brindisi, or drinking song, in which a solo character makes a toast (Here, it’s Alfredo) and then the company joins in. The Brindisi is common in Italian opera (there are examples in Verdi’s Otello and Macbeth, and Gilbert and Sullivan poked fun at it), but, curiously, the word comes from “(Ich) bring dir’s,” a very German phrase once used by knights to “offer you” a drink followed, presumably, by a toast.
LISTEN: The Brindisi as performed by Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano.

You can view an English translation of La Traviata to follow along with the excerpts. At the opera, we’ll have English supertitles above the stage.
Banda music (literally wind-instruments playing music from somewhere else) announce a dance.  Alfredo, concerned about Violetta’s health, stays behind to confront her, then to confess his love in “Un di felice.” This is one of many of Verdi’s three-quarter time (sometimes 6/8 time), slow “oom-plick-plick” pieces.  It’s a fun game to see how many of these can be cited and from which operas; there are many, to be sure, but no opera has more than La traviata

This particular “oom-plick-plick” piece is made more special by the tune Alfredo sings, “Di quell’amor.” 

The tune is emblematic of his love for Violetta and is repeated at several important moments in the opera, sometimes sung (Violetta sings it later in this act, recalling) and sometimes as underscoring in the orchestra. Violetta’s rejoinder in this duet, despite the “oom-plick-plick” underneath, couldn’t be more different: there is daring fioratura (ornamented or “flowered” music) to suggest he flee from her and that only friendship is possible.

 LISTEN: Un di felice—Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti (“Di quell’amor” is heard at 0:49; the fioratura begins at 1:34.)

In the stretta (refers to the closing of a scene, where music tightens up and usually gets faster) of Act I, the ensemble chatters about dawn ensuing and other parties to attend. (This music is very difficult for a chorus to enunciate this fast without rushing ahead of the orchestra! Left alone, Violetta now sings perhaps the most famous (and fearsome) of all soprano scenes in the repertoire. Called a “double-aria”, the first half of which is slow (“Ah, fors’e lui”) and the second half of which is fiendishly and recklessly difficult (“Sempre libera”), it requires every available tool in a soprano’s toolbox. The slow aria has a reiteration of Alfredo’s earlier line “Di quell’amor;” that emblem, sung in exactly the same manner, even in the same key, and at the end, a cadenza, very delicate and moving at the same time. Then, instantaneously, her mind suddenly changed, she launches into “always free;” music that is desperate, irresponsible and, at the same time, determined; music that characterizes the other side of Violetta.

LISTEN: Ah, fors’e lui/Sempre libera – Renata Tebaldi (The latter begins at 5:00.)

Stay tuned for future blog posts of what to listen for in the other acts of La Traviata - or download our Opera Insider today for the full article and more insider information on the entire 2015 Festival.

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