VERDI AND HOW THE MUSES
WHISPERED IN THE COMPOSER'S EAR
by Alfred E. Vecchio
(from New Jersey Opera Review, Spring '97)
La Traviata is an exception in Verdi's operatic output. The love between Violetta and Alfredo does not draw upon historical or legendary sources as tradition virtually dictated in Verdi's own time. It's a story - and a highly Romantic one - about a love affair set in the 1850's. It was its very modernity which, according to reports of the time, accounted for its initial failure. Other reasons have been offered for the fiasco that took place at the Venice Theatre in Venice in 1853; some suggesting that the heroine (a courtesan) of the original true life story was barely acceptable as a vehicle for an operatic diva of the 1850s.
The libretto (by Piave) was based on Alexander Dumas the Younger's play La Dame aux camellias, which earlier had been published in novel form by the author. Dumas barely concealed the fact that both novel and play were autobiographical, based on his own love affair with Marie du Plessis, a well known Parisian courtesan. Dumas called her Marguerite Gautier. Verdi too had of course to contend with the inappropriateness of the subject matter; his problems were further heightened by the fact that operatic tradition presented even greater resistance to the use of contemporary themes than did the theatre. But set it to music he did and in doing so produced one of the truly unique masterpieces of lyric art, and is now singled out as one of the few examples of operatic literature in which the medium so perfectly fits the message.
Salient among its many virtues is that he created a musical and theatrical character in Violetta (his name for Marie/Marguerite) for which sopranos (and of course audiences) have been eternally grateful. For it is the soprano who almost totally dominates the opera, so much so that one critic noted that a Traviata performance without a superlative singer in the title role is as dismal a prospect as Hamlet without a fine prince.
The central feature of Violetta's character is Verdian in the most complete sense of the word; she represents a common human condition, in this case, two coexistent realities mutually exclusive of the other. In Violetta's case the courtesan and the possibility of love coexist in unhappy balance, much as in Rigoletto the concerned father coexists with the shallow and insensitive court-jester, and much as mother and gypsy consistently struggle for dominance in the character of Azucena. Violetta's passion for Alfredo is totally inimical to her way of life as it is to society's more or less than a truly incredible musical and theatrical appropriateness. Violetta's mood changes are many, mercurial, as George Marek has put it, and the singing-actress who can be "consistent and mercurial and sexually enticing in both guises" is, he declares, a Violetta. It comes as no surprise that the role has challenged sopranos as perhaps no other female role in the operatic repertoire. In our own time the great Violettas have been Galli-Curci, Lucrezia Borgi, and Licia Albanese - the latter considered by many the ideal Violetta iof our time.
Verdi himself demanded the following qualities from his Violetta, she had, he once wrote, to have looks, soul, and a good stage presence. And of course, this role of roles (as Marek dubbed it) requires, as already mentioned, a singing-actress of astonishingly accomplished vocal technique and vocal psychology. She must, with unconditioned master and originality, be able to draw us into the world of Violetta; she must be able, as one critic put it, to make us feel "like an intruder eavesdropping on the legitimate moments of a woman'slife."
As with all great art it is not to the dramatic climaxes, to the great arias and duets alone that we must look in order to grasp the full impact of the opera; it is to the valleys between the peaks, the connecting tissues that we must look to, and which can make the role of Violetta either a pedestrian musical event (for even the sublimest music can stand or fall on its interpretation), or, if all demands are fulfilled it can become a virtual epiphany of musical and theatrical meaning and feeling.
It is no accident that the other principals, Alfredo and Germont, revolve around Violetta. Even the role of Norma must have to share its brilliant light with the glorious music that Bellini wrote for every principal in theopera of that name. And whereas Violetta's artistic truth can stand alone, that of Alfredo and Germont finds, with very few exceptions, reverberation only in relation to Violetta. The wages of sin may be death, but in Verdi's La Traviata the wages of sincan be salvation, for Violetta teaches something to everyone in the opera, but especially to Alfredo and to Germont. To Germont she brings the redeeming passion of sacrifice and suffering; to Alfredo the giftof love. Left to themselves, Alfredo and Germont can appear, all too often, to be rather inane musical figures;left alone, Germont in particular, is nothing more than a cipher for sloganeering, rather morally tired bourgeois. His admonition to Alfredo (coming now from a reformed Germont) in the final moments of the card scene is, simply speaking, heart-rending: "Disgraceful outrage! We all despise you! .. Where am I to find Alfredo in all of this? Where is Alfredo? Where will I find him?.. You're not my son, you're not my son." All is expressed in a tone of such manifest humanity, of touching effusions of Verdian musical and moral generosity that its effect cannot but be of penetrating beauty.
From the moment that the curtain rises we are shown a Violetta moving from one astonishingly effective musical and theatrical mode to another and another:.. and yet another. The first act finds Violetta greeting her guests; this is followed by Violetta and Alfredo joining voices in the celebrated Brindisi; Violetta's ecstatic but ambivalent 'Ah, fors'è Iui" is immediately followed by her febrile devil-may-care celebration of personal freedom; "Sempre libera." All is presented in an astonishing display of musical and dramatic bravura, and all hinges on Violetta. And so the opera progresses to the inevitability of its closing scenes, an inevitability which Verdi, paces with what is nothing short of a miraculous "geometric" rigor, without ever sacrificing the breath of musical life. But we are here again speaking of the opera's highlights, whereas the present writer wishes to draw the reader's and audience's attention to Verdi's ability to perfect the vocal and theatrical picture not by his use of broad strokes, but in the use of small, deft ones. These are of such ingenuity that we rnarvel that such strokes of genius can be found not simply in single phrases, but even in single words. An entire history of emotions is found here. Consider the repartee between Violetta and Alfredo in the first act, beginning with the words: "Voi Qui" ("You, here!"). The singers must possess the spirit of what the Italians call "prontezza", that is, readiness. Throughout the dialogue Violetta in particular must register surprise one moment, incredulity in another, consternation at having to face for the first time the truth of her barren emotional life: "Che dite?... ha forse alcuno cura di me?" (What are you saying? Does anyone really care for me?") she asks. And Alfredo retorts: "No one cares for you because no one loves you." "No one?" Violetta answers, and Alfrerlo responds, much to Violetta's amazement, "Only I alone." Violetta is now ready to listen to Alfredo's full declaration of love, beginning with the words: "One happy day..." All takes place in a matter of minutes. Just as Alfredo's confrontation provokes a myriad of responses in Violetta, so does her confrontation with Germont turn her life around once again. When Germont bluntly asks her: "Why, why does the past accuse you?" Violetta's response offers another extraordinary musical moment: "My past;' she says, "exists no more... Now I love Alfredo, and God erased it with my repentance!". Recognizing that he is now dealing with an exceptional woman, Germont responds: "Noble feelings, indeed!"), and Violetta, with penetrating simplicity answers: "Oh come dolce mi suona il vostro accento!" ("How sweet your words sound to me!").
From this point on reality closes in on her inexorably. But note what Verdi has wrought in these few minutes of dialogue: in the beginning of the act Violetta's optimism knows no bounds but within a very few lines she is made to realize that her life with Alfredo is destined to end: "II previdi, v'attesi... Ero felice troppo" ("I foresaw it... I was expecting you... I was too happy.") The dynamics of that psychological and moral transformation must be chiseled, as it were, in cameo; it must be recreated step by step, note by note, word by word. Careless or indifferent timing, mushy vowels, swallowed consonants, canned responses or gestures destroy the musical and theatrical integrity of the composer's intent. If the sense of urgency alone which Verdi has built into these small moments is lost or compromised, the melodic cell itself, the musical accents, will fall apart. All is pervaded by Verdi's masterful sense of rhythmic and melodic design; if the delivery falls short even by a hair's breadth from its rhythmic and melodic scheme these, as other scenes throughout the opera, will collapse into the mundane and the merely melodramatic.
Whatever art the role of Violetta requires it must be perfected in these small things, and the listener must be ready to hear them, to recognize them as they come. Such vocal writing can in the proper hands leave one elated, grateful, and yes, even revised and recreated, for it is in the seemingly off-moments that Verdi has, in this writer's opinion, pulled his biggest punches. It is these moments that are more infinitely indicative of the complex reality of Verdi's art. For when, as John Machlis has written, in another context, "when small things are true and full of passion and humanity, they become big things." To listen to La Traviata actively, that is, with creative attention, gives rise to the thought that the muses must indeed have whispered in the composer's ear.
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