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.

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