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Friday, July 10, 2015

What to Listen for in LA TRAVIATA - Act II

John Baril
Conductor, La Traviata
Today we continue with the second part of our Opera Insider article on "What to Listen for in La Traviata", courtesy of conductor John Baril. If you're just joining us, read our blog post regarding Act I.

Alfredo’s aria in Act II is usually performed with the strings playing the offbeats (“oom-CHA-CHA-CHA”) on the strings with their bows. However, there is evidence (and at least one famous recording) to suggest that the strings should play this pizzicato (plucked) instead, resulting in a more intimate, nuanced sound. As of this writing, I haven’t decided which to do and will wait to see which accompaniment is most suited to the staging. Lots of “action” happens in a short amount of time during the first scene of this act. Letters filled with good and bad news are written and delivered, and unknown people arrive and are introduced. Much of opera written in the romantic period has to do with expressing how someone feels about information they’ve just gleaned. Therefore, much of that information is delivered in fast recitative (speaking) style, often by underlings and messengers, and then the major characters’ feelings are expressed in slower, more sustained music (arias and duets and such). In this scene, we also hear Violetta’s passionate outburst “Amami, Alfredo,” hinted at in the prelude; listen for the amazing orchestral crescendo which precedes it.

Another fun game involving Verdi operas: how many “father/daughter” duets can you name, and from which works? The combination of baritone and soprano under these circumstances coerced from Verdi some of the most sublime music ever composed for the lyric stage. Traviata and Rigoletto are perhaps the most recognized, but I encourage you to check out Simon Boccanegra and Luisa Miller

LISTEN: Pura siccome un angelo  (baritone/soprano duet; score excerpted above) – Leonard Warren and Eleanor Steber

The “rules” of opera at the time dictated that Germont (Alfredo’s father) had to have a double-aria too, even though the action stops in order to do so, especially with regard to Alfredo’s anger, so his reactions are allowed for between the cracks of the arias. The second of these arias was often cut to avoid halting the action, but we are keeping one verse of it for two reasons: musical balance and the fact that I wanted to hear Troy [Cook] sing it!

LISTEN: Di Provenza il mar  (1st section of Germont’s double-aria) – Sherrill Milnes

Act II, scene 2 involves some more party music—this time a costume ball. Alfredo arrives, and with him, some of Verdi’s most intense music (up to this point, anyway) including an obsessively repeated motif (very small rhythmic pattern, first in the lower strings) that keeps the action moving forward to tighten up the drama. 

About the drama: La traviata is often considered the first verismo opera (realistic, or, about real people as opposed to royalty or mythical characters). Strict censorship by authorities who controlled such things prevented Traviata from being performed in modern costume, which was Verdi’s preference. That was considered too risqué and avant garde. However, it resulted in the first chink in the armor: though Verdi would fight with censors throughout his life, this fight resulted in the verismo opera movement, which includes works such as Cavalleria rusticana, I pagliacci, and much of Puccini’s output. Audiences identified much more sympathetically with this type of naturalistic theatre.

Violetta tries to get Alfredo to leave, mostly for his safety (an impending duel, of course), but his pride takes a hit, all underscored by the intense music. Everyone returns to the stage for an extraordinary ensemble that ends the act. Listen for the different reactions of characters and then Violetta’s gorgeously sad melody in the midst of it all.

LISTEN: Act II finale – Teresa Stratas, Fritz Wunderlich, Hermann Prey (“Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core...” is heard at 6:23 and  visually excerpted above.)

Stay tuned for our final installment of what to listen for in Act III 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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