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:

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.

"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:

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:

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:

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.

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