April 26, 2015

A cavalierly rustic post that ain't clowning around

I just got back from an afternoon at the movies - namely, the final HD presentation of the season from our friends at the Metropolitan Opera, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I have a random collection of reactions, memories and opinions to offer you.
A mule, waiting to audition for James Levine
(photo courtesy of mwanasimba of La Réunion)

Coincidence
This makes two consecutive blog posts about Cavalleria, even though Virginia Opera hasn't staged it in several years. Weird.

The Mule.
The backstage camera lingered for several minutes on a mule, none too patiently awaiting the moment when Nedda (Patricia Racette) would climb aboard for her equestrian entrance. The mule was pacified by a steady parade of sugar lumps. He must have needed them, as initially he used his muzzle to whack some guy standing between him and the sugar-lady. Yo! Move it, dude! Once onstage, he performed like the reliable pro he must be to get a gig at the Met. Hit all his marks. Didn't poop.

Nostalgic memory
I love every note of Cavalleria, but there is one passage that stirs me particularly, and I can tell you why. When I was around eight or nine years old, I was a serious young piano student and spent a lot of time - a LOT - listening to classical LP's on my parent's hi-fi. One that really caught my attention was a disc issued by RCA Victor to showcase some of their featured artists. They called it a "summer festival" of music; the cover art depicted colorfully-dressed people lounging on the grass in front of a grandstand where, in the distance, someone was singing. I loved this record! I remember it had Van Cliburn playing the scherzo from a MacDowell piano concerto, a guitar concerto movement by Giuliani, the overture to Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla and an excerpt from Cavalleria Rusticana

The recording featured Jussi Bjoerling and Zinka Milanov and the excerpt was the big confrontation between Turridu and Santuzza just after Lola sayshays through the square. You know, I had no idea what was happening in that duet........... and yet, I swear I did anyway. There was no libretto or synopis. But Mascagni's music is so apt and so expressive that it was clear to me: they were arguing, he was really stinkin' mad, she was sad and pleading for something, he said forget it, and she got pissed and yelled at him. And what else would grownups be all riled up about if not "love stuff"? This didn't sound like an argument about the household budget...

Today, when that passage occurs, I instantly regress to the age of nine until Alfio makes his entrance. I love it for what may be called "extra-musical reasons". I also harbor irrationally fond affection for the MacDowell, the Giuliani and the Glinka.

That set; those chairs
Host Susan Graham told us that the director had cleverly linked the two operas by having them take place in the same town square.  Good thing she pointed that out, because I don't think one person in a million would have made that connection. But let it go, let it go - we need to chat about the set for the Mascagni.

I don't quibble with the severity of the costuming, consisting of drab black suits for the uomini and plain black dresse for the donne. I somehow imagine that the ladies might have gussied up a bit more for Easter Sunday, but again: let it goooooooooo..

But the drabness and colorlessness became overwhelming with the barren, dark, tomb-like surroundings. A large raised wooden platform with a long communal table, all surrounded by chairs arranged in a giant circle. The chorus entered to sit in the chairs, staring at Santuzza as she............
............ walked around....... looking grim....   Then she sat in the last empty chair.

It looked less like sunny  Sicily than a Russian gulag in the dead of winter. Or the dining hall at Dachau.

WHY?

The Pagliacci schtick
I'd read some reviews of this production and was aware that some authentic clown routines had been incorporated into the Prologue and the famous play-within-a-play at the end. The latter was entertaining and appropriate. The fact that it was over the top was fine; I'm thinking these traveling comedy troupes were likely less Noel Coward and more Three Stooges, comedy-wise.

But the Prologue (really well-sung, by the way) didn't come off as well. It amounted to Tonio being frustrated that the cord for his microphone kept getting stuck. He'd 1) walk with the mic; 2) jerk to a stop when it wasn't long enough; and 3) yank on it, causing three "stagehand" clowns to come tumbling out. Ha ha ha. Actually, the whole jerking-yanking deal was distracting and annoying. Didn't need it.

When did movie-goers become so freaking RUDE?
The omnipresence of electronic entertainment in modern culture has turned us into a society of louts and boors. I dread going to the movies these days, know what I mean? Today the offenders were a party of three 60-somethingish women. They sat on the far left end on the theater, and they felt free to talk in their normal conversational voices whenever they pleased. I was sitting too far away from them for my dark-side-of-the-Force stares of doom to register with them. They regarded any orchestral interludes (including the famous Intermezzo, for Pete's sake!) as a kind of intermission, during which they could cackle and gab.

A larger percentage of people than you'd think are new to warhorse operas
At every key plot point in today's performance, a large number of people reacted out loud in a way that implied they were unfamiliar with either story. Groans of disapproval, loud "aw"s of sympathy, and so on. Those of us who are jaded to the standard repertoire assume that most people attending the opera are like us. Don't be too sure. Remember: a statistically insignificant percentage of the population cares anything about opera. These movies reach all sorts of "regular people" who think Phantom is an opera.

Final rant encore
But really - that set. The Met is hastily getting rid of the hyper-realistic old-fashioned sets by Zeffirelli and others in an effort to "modernize" things. So we have a cathedral in Tosca that looks like a back alley and, in Eugene Onegin, a bare stage covered with paper leaves. At the same time, the stated objective of Peter Gelb and his staff is to bring in young people - a whole new clientele; a new base of subscribers and patrons who haven't previously been into opera.

These sets will do it? These and other productions have gone for darkness, drabness and a dismal gritty affect. That'll bring in the Gen-nexters?

Maybe so - what do I know?

April 3, 2015

Top 10 Rejected Curses for "Cavalleria Rusticana"

Now, don't jump all over me, Faithful Readers, but as much as I love Mascagni's Sicilian one-acter Cavalleria Rusticana, there's one moment that always struck me as funny. It's the conclusion of the big confrontation between that two-timing jackass Turiddu, and Santuzza, the lover he dumped in favor of the comely Lola.
Gemma Bellincioni as Santuzza
Wash your mouth out with soap, girl!

It's when Santuzza, so angry that she forgets to sing, shrieks out a terrifying curse on Turiddu as he walks away: "A TE LA MALA PASQUA!" In English this literally means "A BAD EASTER TO YOU!"

I'm confident that there are elements of Italian/Sicilian culture, not shared by Americans, that explain how this phrase came to be a thing. It reminds me of my own parents, in a way. My dad always had trouble remembering to bring the trash container out to the curb on pick-up days, so my mom always put a post-it note on the refrigerator door the night before: "Happy Trash Day". In time, "Happy Trash Day" became a thing in our family; something you said as a random greeting on any day.

So on this Good Friday in the year of our Lord 2015, I flew over to Mascagni's studio, rummaged through some desk drawers, and came upon a legal pad containing some alternate curses for Santuzza's big moment, curses that obviously were rejected in favor of the "bad Easter" one.

As a scholar, I feel it my duty to share them with you now. Feel free to adopt any of them that strike you as useful. And gosh - isn't it eerily coincidental and convenient that there happen to be ten of them? I'll say!

TOP 10 REJECTED CURSES FOR SANTUZZA IN CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA

10:  I HOPE ALL YOUR CANDY HAS NUTS IN IT BECAUSE I KNOW YOU'RE ALLERGIC!

9.   I HOPE YOUR BUNNY BITES YOU AND THEN RUNS AWAY AND YOU NEVER SEE IT AGAIN!

8.   I HOPE YOU HAVE TO SING AT AN OUTDOOR SUNRISE SERVICE AND THE WEATHER IS AWFUL WITH RAIN TURNING TO SLEET!.

7    I HOPE YOU GO TO AN EASTER BRUNCH AND THE PRIME RIB IS RUBBERY AND GREASY AND THE DESSERTS ARE DRY AND TASTELESS!

6.   I HOPE A TREE FALLS ON YOU ON ARBOR DAY! (Golly, I didn't even know they celebrated Arbor Day in Sicily...)

5.   I HOPE YOU GO TO A PLAY ON LINCOLN'S BIRTHDAY AND SOMEBODY SHOOTS YOU! (I'll admit - this one really surprised me,)

4.   I HOPE YOU GET A CUTE FUZZY LITTLE CHICK FOR EASTER AND YOUR FERRET EATS IT WHILE YOU WATCH!

3.   I HOPE YOU GET ONLY CINNAMON JELLY BEANS AND NO FRUITY ONES!

2.   I HOPE A GUST OF WIND BLOWS YOUR EASTER BONNET OFF YOUR HEAD AND INTO A MUD PUDDLE! (Apparently Mascagni's librettists momentarily forgot that Turiddu is a guy, so this rejection makes sense.)

And the number one rejected curse for Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana:

1.  I HOPE YOU DON'T GET PASSED OVER AND THAT YOUR BITTER HERBS ARE INAPPROPRIATELY SWEET!

Mascagni, genius that he was, chose well in the end.


March 17, 2015

La Traviata: the spoof

In previous seasons of this blog, I used to do a parody of each of Virginia Opera's productions. "The 2-minute Carmen"; "The 2-minute Butterfly", and so on.

I more or less retired those recently, and then this season the Suits at the Harrison Opera House asked me to write and narrate spoofs for both Salome and La Traviata. These were posted on YouTube in the hopes of 1) possibly selling a few more tickets and 2) proving that we're NOT STUFFY! NOT STUFFY! Oh yeah, we're FAR from stuffy around here!!!

I'll be taking a blog-break soon, but thought I'd close out the mainstage season with the script and corresponding YouTube video for Traviata.

The forrmat for the video was dictated by inclement weather. Each time a shoot with live human actors was scheduled, a gi-normous snowstorm would descend on Southeastern Virginia and cancel it. So my friends at Lucid Frame Productions got creative and came up with a Monty Python-style animation. If indeed "animation" is the correct term. Well - you'll see for  yourself.

First, here's the script:

See this beautiful woman? She’s the glamorous Violetta. Violetta gives simply fabulous parties. She loves expensive clothes, jewels, and champagne. Oh - and rich boyfriends. She has quite few rich boyfriends. She sort of collects them, actually. Hey, everyone needs a hobby! She’s thinking of going to a take-a-number system for potential boyfriends, just to keep them organized.

Violetta would be the ideal woman except for one teensy-weensy, pesky little flaw. She’s got an annoying cough (Violetta coughs violently into someone’s champagne glass, then pantomimes “Oops – sorry.”)

See this guy? That’s Alfredo. He’s a nice boy. He comes from a nice family. He’s having a nice time at the party. He would be the ideal boyfriend except for one teensy-weensy, pesky little flaw. He isn’t rich. Violetta is not impressed. (She coughs violently into Alfredo’s face.) Whoops – there’s that annoying cough again.

Alfredo is very persistent! He corners Violetta after dinner and does two things. First, he gives her a spoonful of Robitussin. Second, he pours out his nice little heart in a declaration of love. Violetta laughs merrily at his boyish charm. (She pantomimes laughing which then turns into a coughing fit.) You know, she should really see her primary care physician about that.

Well, lookie here – Violetta and Alfredo are living together out in the country! Violetta has found her domestic side, spending her days cooking pots of homemade marinara sauce. (She coughs into the pot then makes a face: “Ew, gross”)

Who do we have here? Uh-oh, it’s Mr. Germont, Alfredo’s dad. He’s shocked, shocked, I tell  you, to learn that his baby boy is Boyfriend Number 47 of the glamorous Violetta. He tells her to break if off before the entire family is disgraced. Violetta, after a few coughs of sadness, tells him that even though Alfredo technically isn’t rich, she LOVES him. Germont realizes she’s not so bad, a lot nicer than he was expecting. But she still has to leave Alfredo, because: courtesan. (Germont does a “thumbs-down” gesture. Violetta pantomimes “aw, shucks”) Exit Violetta, coughing.

Look, it’s another fabulous party! Violetta is there with rich boyfriend No. 59. She’s been a busy courtesan! But guess who’s crashing the party? Alfredo. He’s… different. Hmmm… what’s different about him? (Alfredo pantomimes pitching a fit, jumping up and down, etc.) I know! He’s not nice anymore! He calls Violetta a lot of ungentlemanly names like “Robitussin-breath”. Violetta is sad.


(Jump to shot of Violetta in bed, coughing). Uh-oh – I TOLD her she should see a doctor about that cough. I don’t think Robitussin is going to help this girl. No more parties or boyfriends, and she’s all out of champagne. (She tosses away an empty champagne glass) What a bummer. Hey, look – it’s Alfredo, and guess what: he’s nice again! He’s a lot more likeable when he’s nice like this. And look! It’s Mr. Germont, too! He’s sorry for all that stuff he said before. He’s nice too! All this niceness is lifting Violetta’s spirits. She feels WAY better! (She gets out of bed and starts dancing comically, i.e. Charleston or the Twist. Then suddenly she freezes and drops to the floor.) Or…. Maybe not….

And now: here's what Tricia and Gordon of Lucid Frame made of it: Click here for "One-take Opera: Traviata for Simpletons"


March 8, 2015

The sonata hidden in "La Traviata"

These days, music majors at Indiana University attend the Jacobs School of Music. It was simply the "School of Music" when I was there in the 1970's for my first two degrees in piano. One of my music history professors was a lanky scholar with a big droopy mustache and an ultra-70's ponytail named Austin Caswell. He had a hipster way of speaking and often said that if he had his way, every student would get an "A" because he hated the whole idea of grades.
Antonio Barezzi, Verdi's father-in-law

 In his lectures he tended to support my stereotyped image of musicologists as beings whose interest in music began with Gregorian chant and ended with the death of Bach. When the class arrived at the "unit" on opera, Caswell's analysis was, um, concise: "Italian opera? It's just tunes - nothin' but tunes." He pronounced it "toons". It was a very brief unit.

He was wrong.

For one prime example, let's dissect an extended scene from La Traviata; namely, the lengthy scene in Act 2 in which Giorgio Germont demands that Violetta Valery leave his son Alfredo. I hesitate to call this a "duet". "Mira o Norma" is a duet: a short musical number for two voices. What we have here is longer (some 18 minutes) and more complex than a 4 minute "tune" (thanks, Prof. Caswell) for soprano and baritone.

18 minutes is a long time for two characters to hold the stage. It's a talky scene, with little action: no sword fights, nobody faints or dies; it's just a dialogue that gets heated at times. The challenge for Verdi was how to set it to music in a way that would be compelling to the audience; keeping their attention and avoiding monotony.

Now, understand: Caswell wasn't entirely wrong. The Violetta-Germont scene, like the rest of Traviata (and the rest of Verdi's oeuvre) is loaded with "tunes". It's a mother-lode of quality melodic invention that arises seemingly effortlessly and organically. Where Caswell erred was in the slur implied by the word "just". Verdi has not simply strung together eight melodies like a chain of paper clips - that would be boring.

In fact, the scene takes on the formal structure of a multi-movement work, similar to a sonata or symphony. This approach not only avoids monotony, but has the cumulative effect of taking the characters on a journey, one that will cause both of them to evolve and be fundamentally different people by the end. In the case of Violetta, one might say that she experiences all of the traditional stages of grief, time-compressed for dramatic purposes. We the audience will go on a similary journey thanks to the intensely visceral nature of her music.

Here's how this "sonata" constructed, in terms of movements:

INTRODUCTION
Just as we find in some sonatas or symphonies, the beginning is both a musical and a personal introduction, as Germont literally introduces himself to Violetta. Largely accompanied recitative, this section serves to establish Germont's initial attitude of scorn and contempt as well as Violetta's dignity and poise. Having made clear their starting postures and the nature of their conflict, the scene may begin in earnest. Germont realizes he will have to convince this woman to comply with his wishes.

FIRST MOVEMENT
"Duet" partners often sing simultaneously, as in the famous Flower Duet in Lakme. Singing together generally signifies agreement; a unified point of view. Here, the characters are in opposition, so Verdi wisely employs binary form, or A-B. The "A" section consists the first of Germont's arguments. In the solo "Pura siccome un angelo", he presents the real agenda behind his visit: Alfredo's young sister is engaged to a young man from a prominent family, and if it's discovered that her brother is living with a courtesan, her happiness will be ruined. He outlines all this in a smoothly-flowing cantabile, a classic example of the style that has come to define the so-called "Verdi baritone":


Following this material there is a transitional passage in which Violetta goes through the "bargaining" stage of the grieving process, floating the idea that she leave Alfredo temporarily until the wedding has come and gone. When this idea is rejected, she launches into the "B" section, an agitated, panic-stricken outburst in which she tells Germont that he has no idea what he's asking of her. This constitutes the "denial-anger" phase:


SECOND MOVEMENT
Since the characters are still adversaries, the music again adopts the A-B format, with Germont first launching his counter-argument. He now gets it that Violetta is no mere gold-digger, so he gives her some "straight talk": she's living in a dream world, hoping for a future that is impossible. (NOTE: in Julie Kavanagh's excellent biography The Girl Who Loved Camellias, we learn that Marie Duplessis often heard this speech from her platonic friend Romaine Viennes.) Germont's music takes on a foreboding, almost menacing tone:


Violetta's response signals the "depression" stage; it is a long wail of pure misery as the truth of Germont's bleak prediction hits her. It is at this point that Violetta's character first departs from the historical model of Marie, who likely would have told Germont what he could do with his suggestions. It is music of searing anguish:



THIRD MOVEMENT
If the second "movement" was a scherzo, what follows is the slow movement. It is the key movement both of the scene and of the entire opera, for it is here that Violetta sheds her frivolous, hedonistic narcissism for good and comes to terms with the consequences of the choices she has made. It is also this section that marks the turnaround in Germont's attitude toward her; he has been won over by her utter sincerity and now has mixed feelings about the mission that brought him to this moment.

To emphasize these shifts, Verdi switches to ternary form, or A-B-A'. Now Violetta begins, her message expressing the "acceptance" stage in a hushed, defeated affect as she asks Germont to pass on a message of good will to his daughter:


Germont has made a 180-degree adjustment in his opinion of Violetta, now joining the audience in feeling total empathy for her emotional upheaval. I find it interesting that Verdi clearly saw two aspects of his own past life in the role of Germont. First, the character's inclination to protest his son's scandalous relationship with this woman brought up memories of the time his former father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi, scolded him for his own scandalous cohabitation with Giuseppina Strepponi. In addition, the fact that Germont is now coming to have fatherly feelings for this doomed woman who will shortly die is another example of Verdi mourning the death of his own daughter Victoria; it is another in the series of his operas in which fathers lose daughters. Here, Germont offers Violetta a shoulder on which to cry:


This is followed by the return to "A", but with a crucial difference: for the first time since Germont's entrance, the two characters are singing simultaneously. They are no longer adversaries, but are in agreement, their unity made manifest in musical terms.

A final transitional passage of recitative leads to the:

FOURTH MOVEMENT
A suggestion of sonata-allegro form is seen here, as Violetta is given two themes in contrasting keys, corresponding to the "A" and "B" themes in the exposition of a sonata-allegro structure. The first theme, immediately re-stated by Germont, is a march-like highly rhythmic passage expressing her determination that Alfredo know nothing about the agreement she's made with his father:


The "B" theme switches from G minor to B flat, the relative major, yet retaining its rhythmic character as the music turns lyrical and quite animated. Violetta is imagining the day when her lover might learn of her sacrifice: Not surprisingly, the emotional affect mirrors the final aspect of human grief, when one is able to think about the future with adjusted expectations.


In place of a traditional development, the two voices again sing together; the "B" theme is expanded upon, rising to an impressive climax. The scene ends with a combination of recapitulation and coda as parting words of recitative are capped with a return to "Conosca il sacrificio" and final "addio's".

When opera-lovers think of great duets, it's natural to think of one of the celebrated love duets that appeal to our sense of romance: the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, the duet ending Act 1 of Madama Butterfly, and so on. But the problem with love duets is that they seldom reflect characgter growth and development; the principals tend to remain static.

This scene in La Traviata achieves greatness because of the metamorphosis of both soprano and baritone. The librettist F. Maria Piave did an admirable job of providing Verdi with promising matierial in his adaptation of La dame aux camellias and the composer met the challenge with the sophisticated, highly organized formal structure required to do it full justice.

It may be the greatest duet in all of opera.

March 1, 2015

La Traviata and Verdi's "Mozart Moment"

We know that Giuseppe Verdi kept a bound copy of Beethoven's string quartets on his bedside table. Throughout his operas there are multiple traces of Beethoven's influence. My favorite is the furious orchestral passage that opens Act 3 of Falstaff, a bit of bluster reminiscent of the introduction to the final movement of the ninth symphony.
Mozart: casting his shadow in La Traviata? Yep.

When you think about it, Beethoven and Verdi do, at times, appear to share a certain musical approach characterized by forcefulness, extreme dynamic contrast and strongly rhythmic motives. But that doesn't mean that he ignored the other titan of Viennese Classicism, W. A. Mozart.

Why would he, after all? Mozart was the greatest master of opera the world had seen to date. But "Mozartian" moments are, perhaps, less obvious to observe in Verdi's works.

But there's a wonderful tribute to Mozart in La Traviata.

Consider Violetta's moment of introspection in the Act 1 finale, the famous aria "Ah, fors’è lui". In my opinion, Verdi make a conscious choice to model the solo on Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fuhl's" in The Magic Flute. See if you agree with me.

In terms of the text being set, the similarity is minimal, consisting of the overal mood of introspection. Both women are experiencing soliloquies in which they are considering new possibilities, but they're actually polar opposites. Pamina is considering the possibility that Tamino doesn't love her, leaving open the option of suicide. Violetta, on the other hand, is considering the possibility that Alfredo Germont might hold the key to a new life ruled by true love. One is looking at the final end, the other at a new beginning. In that sense, they really are related as two sides of the same coin.

It's in the music itself, however, that this alleged kinship becomes clear -- at least, to Your Humble Blogger.

A side-by-side comparison of the opening phrases of each aria will suffice. First, here's the Magic Flute excerpt:


And now, the correspoonding excerpt from "Ah, fors’è lui":


Here's what I see:

  • Virtually identical orchestral accompaniment both in rhythmic pattern and voicing of a minor triad in the home key, in root position.
  • Similar time signatures and tempos that sound identical in performance.
  • The vocal lines both enter on the second bar of the accompaniment pattern.
  • Both vocal lines outline a descent from the fifth scale-tone down to the first, or from sol to do. In Verdi's version, the first note is essentially an appoggiatura, and the descent is a broken chord. Pamina's descent is a scale.
  • Once having reached the tonic (the first tone of the scale), both vocal lines suddenly ascend with the leap of an octave. eventually cadencing on the fifth.
Whether these features are coincidence is debatable; that they are similar is not. Given that it's generally agreed that Verdi really did evoke Beethoven from time to time, I see no reason to doubt that Violetta's great scena opens with a deliberate homage to the man Verdi surely acknowledged as one of his musical heroes: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

February 22, 2015

Violetta and her musical lie-detector

A lie detector. As you can see, Violetta's really ill.
In one of my recent Salome posts, I referred to mankind’s duality as manifested in Strauss’s characters. Salome and the rest of King Herod’s court represent human carnality, whereas human spirituality is symbolized by the prophet Jochanaan.

In La Traviata, these same impulses drive the story, but now they’re both in one person, the tragic heroine Violetta Valery. As the curtain rises on Act 1, her entire adult life has been devoted to pleasure and frivolity, as was the case with her real-life counterpart, the courtesan Marie Duplessis. But from the time Violetta encounters Alfredo Germont, she discovers what may be called her “authentic self”, a genuine and down-to-earth woman seeking the fulfillment of true love.

I believe that Verdi intends us to see the frivolous woman as an individual holding up a mask; a “happy-face” mask, as it were. It’s an attitude she exhibits to the outside world and to herself when she tries (as in the aria “Sempre libera”) to convince herself that partying and carnality is the lifestyle she prefers.

As I look through the score, I see a musical feature that only appears when Violetta is being dishonest or insincere. It disappears when she is being sincere; speaking from the heart; being honest with herself and others.

That musical feature: the trill. Something as simple as that: the trill. A rapid fluctuation between two successive notes.  The presence of trills in the orchestra or Violetta’s vocal line means she is lying, dissembling or holding up her mask of insincerity. When the vocal line takes the form of long, smooth, unadorned melodies, it's a signal that we are in the presence of the authentic, “spiritual” Violetta, stripped of her posturing.

I’ll prove it.

As the curtain goes up on Act 1, scene 1, the orchestra tells us (whether or not we’re deciphering the code as yet) that we are in the presence of superficial frivolity with a lively tune. It consists of parallel 4-bar phrases, each phrase beginning with a festive trill:
Later, Violetta bids her party-guests adjourn to the ballroom for an evening of dancing. An off-stage band strikes up a tune, the sheer banality of which, not to mention the presence of trills, underscores how shallow they all are:

Alfredo makes his declaration of love in a disarmingly simple (and unembellished) passage beginning "Un di, felice". Violetta responds lightly and flippantly, explaining that she can only offer friendship. Her music is light-hearted and ornate, matching her words. However, there are no trills in vocal line or accompaniment. Why not? She is being candid and honest with this young boy, choosing not to "string him along". No lies = no trills:


Left alone, however, the mask begins to slip just a little. In her great scena to close out Act 1, Violetta muses on her loneliness. The aria "Ah, fors’è lui" dispenses with trills or any other ornaments:


But in the virtuosic cabaletta that follows, "Sempre libera", trills come back with a vengeance as Violetta flips the mask back in place in an attempt to bury her doubts and fear of commitment under a thick layer of coloratura:



Not convinced of my theory yet? Hang with me for three more examples and you will be.

In the great Violetta-Germont duet of Act 2 during which she agrees to abandon Alfredo to protect his family's reputation, the emotional affects are as brutally honest and sincere as human beings can be. 

No trills.

When Germont departs and Alfredo enters, he finds his lover highly emotional, clearly distraught for no reason he can think of. When Violetta realizes she's on the brink of revealing his father's demands and the bargain she's made, she summons up the wherewithal to pretend that everything's okay. Smiling bravely, she tells him "I'm calm now; I'm smiling". It's a lie, of course; her heart is broken. And in the orchestra, dancing, trilling violins document her fib.

In fact, when she makes a hurried exit following her celebrated volcanic outburst "Amami, Alfrredo", a slow trill in the orchestra ushers her out.

In Act 3, Violetta has returned to her party life, but her music has not! In a neat bit of musical paradox, Verdi makes it clear that, having once embraced her authentic and honest self, she can no longer stomach her former life of frivolous posturing. When Alfredo crashes the party to engage Baron Douphol in some cut-throat gambling, Violetta utters a fretful prayer sans trills; in fact, it's in Verdi's trademark arcing contour:


And finally, the trills make a brief, final appearance shortly before Violetta dies. Reunited with a contrite Alfredo, Violetta is joyful but collapses in a sudden spasm of weakness. Alfredo is alarmed. She answers "Ora son forte. Vedi? Sorriso" (Now I feel strong. Do you see? I'm smiling.") Alfredo is not buying it, and neither are we, for her words are set to a vocal line both tragic and pathetic it its attempt to hold up the mask one more time. She is telling a lie born of her desire to reassure herself and her true love. And Verdi's lie-detector is in place one final time:


None of this is coincidence; it is fully deliberate; it is craftsmanship. A trill in itself is not remarkable; by actual count trills have been utilized 55,000,000,000,000 times in the history of music. (NOTE: I made up that number, but as a guesstimate I'd say it's pretty good.) The stunning effectiveness of trilling in La Traviata lies in how -and when - and when NOT - it is employed by Verdi as a gauge of Violetta's sincerity every time she speaks or thinks.

It's brilliant.

February 15, 2015

That time Verdi made an opera about Anna Nicole Smith

Verdi's La Traviata is at once one of the most familiar and one of the least-understood operas. To many an opera-goer, the saga of Violetta Valery will seem like "a typical Italian opera". You know: a scarcely-believable plot involving a dying soprano, true love, blah blah yada yada.
Violetta Valery, er, Marie Duplessis, er,
Anna Nicole Smith. Yeah, that's it!

The celebrated conductor Anthony Pappano feels that this model has long since run its course. In an talk he gave on Mark-Anthony Turnage's 2011 opera Anna Nicole,  Pappano said:

How do you do modern operas today? Do you do Shakespeare? Do you do the great American novels? Do you do ... great literature? And the idea was not to do that, but (to) really write a contemporary opera about a contemporary subject.

Fine. But if Giuseppi Verdi could have been present for that remark and the talk that followed, he might have raised his hand politely and said, "Scusatemi, Signore. Pardon me. Been there, done that."

Because that's what Traviata was. This was an exception to the normal Verdi oeuvre. Here was no Macbeth or Othello; no Old Testament King as in Nabucco; no ancient history as in Don Carlo or Simon Boccanegra or several others; no mere fictional literary adaptation like Rigoletto.

Nope: just as Turnage chose the story of a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon, a character familiar to everyone in the audience, Verdi did........  well, he actually chose the exact same story.

Violetta Valery was based on the life of the great courtesan Marie Duplessis, a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon. Everyone in the audience would have immediately recognized Marie in the character of Violetta. Marie died in 1847, and Traviata, based on the play La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils, premiered in 1853. Memories were still fresh.

Marie Duplessis was as iconic a figure in that era as Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie. She was the woman men wanted to be with and women wanted to be, even if secretly; a woman of distinctive beauty and overwhelming charisma and presence.

In this regard, Verdi broke the mold and truly anticipated modern operas like Anna Nicole, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and many others of recent times.

As proof, compare scenes from each opera side by side. First, the opening of Act 2 of Anna Nicole depicts her hosting a lavish party financed by the elderly billionaire who supported her: Click here to view "Partay!" Now here's the equivalent scene in Traviata as Violetta, financed by a stable of elderly and wealthy admirers, hosts her own lavish "partay". Click here for identical sentiments couched in more elegant music. The similarities are significant; the differences are trivial.

Why did Verdi choose this character? Was it for the sake of launching off in a new direction? Being innovative for the sake of innovation? I would say not. Verdi's interest in the play had less to do with the real celebrity behind the highly sanitized heroine of Dumas' play and more to do with his own personal history.

For Verdi, this was personal -- and painful.

In Violetta (called Marguerite Gautier by Dumas), Verdi saw both of the women in his life. Violetta's tragic death at an early age (Marie died at age 23) brought back the painful memory of his first wife, Margherita Barezzi, who died of encephalitis, just months following the deaths of their infant children Virginia and Icilio. She and Verdi had been married only four years. In addition, the dramatic conflict engendered by Violetta living with Alfredo in the country outside the bonds of marriage was very close to Verdi's relationship with his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

Strepponi retired from a successful singing career to be with Verdi, but found him unwilling to go through with a church wedding. (The death of his wife and children had killed his interest in religion.) Thus, they cohabited in a common-law arrangement in the composer's tiny hometown of Busseto, a bastion of conservative church-going Catholics. Giuseppina found herself a pariah amongst her "respectable" neighbors. In a circumstance ironically similar to Germont's visit to Violetta in Act 2, Verdi's old father-in-law Signor Barezzi came to upbraid the composer, warning him of the consequences of the scancal.

What's more, the fact that Germont comes to love Violetta like a daughter, only to witness her death, adds another element: Traviata becomes another in the series of operas by Verdi in which a father loses a daughter, joining Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and many others.

One reason I admire Verdi as a man as well as a creative genius is the manner in which he rescued himself from the black hole of depression that struck him following the deaths of the children and Margherita. Bear in mind, in the 1840's there were no medications like Prozac; no grief counselors; no psychiatrists to treat the afflicted. A lesser man might have succumbed to depression and survivor's guilt.

Instead, Verdi became his own therapist, expressing his grief time after time in operas echoing his personal tragedies. The result? At age 80 he had recovered sufficiently to compose that most sunny and positive of comedies, Falstaff. The great man healed himself through his art.

He couldn't NOT write La Traviata. And in the process, he ended up with what we would call a "bio-pic" in the movie biz; a searingly contemporary work commemorating one of the most fascinating women of mid-nineteenth century France.

And then went back to history and Shakespeare!!