La traviata, A highlight reel
In this page, we have a sort of “highlight reel” of notable moments from La traviata. I have compiled these from a 1967 production by the Rome Opera that is freely available on Youtube with English subtitles. Each link will have a timestamp on it so it should drop at the appropriate point, although I include the timings as a backup. Some might find the non-traditional staging of this production rather austere or strange as it involves a sparse design and an omnipresent giant clock that reminds Violetta of her imminent death. I personally think it focuses the viewer on the performers in a quite riveting manner, but there’s no accounting for taste! At the very least it shouldn’t distract too much from our goals here. It is also worth noting that Utah Opera’s La traviata is more traditional than this production.
As we will see, the complexity of the characters and situations in La traviata at times demanded a more flexible interpretation of the musical conventions of Italian opera. In this regard, La traviata is often paired off against Il trovatore, with traviata as the forward-looking realistic contemporary story and Trovatore as the resolutely conservative melodrama. However, Verdi does not abandon the traditions by any means, as the Rossinian scena of cantabile-tempo di mezzo-cabaletta remains a fundamental element, but Verdi bends the rules as his characters and scenes demand it. We can also look for a distinctive and individual “colorito” to the opera as well, found mostly in the score’s recurring waltz-like rhythms (a nod to the “party” culture in which the opera begins and which Violetta attempts to escape) and Verdi’s distillation of his melodies into simple, direct phrases that occupy a fairly narrow range.
Prelude (0:00)- Rather than provide a medley of musical themes from the opera, or set the stage for the initial party scene, Verdi’s prelude instead paints a warm and poignant portrait of Violetta, the doomed traviata. Towards the end, the embellishments hint at the flirtatious aspect of her character in the first Act.
“Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (8:23) – The famous brindisi truly introduces us (and Violetta) to Alfredo, and is sung at the urging of the Baron Douphol as a bit of alpha-male hazing. This also introduces a waltz rhythm, which functions as a sort of rhythmic through-line for the entire opera. Indeed, the offstage band plays a waltz in the adjoining room as Violetta has an attack and sends her guests on without her, and the fairly banal music underscores the dialogue between Violetta and Alfredo.
“Un di felice” (13:32)- Alfredo declares his love. “Mysterioso…” becomes a reminiscence motive throughout the rest of the opera. Violetta’s reply is in a light coloratura, but she begins to harmonize as Alfredo stubbornly repeats his melody and the two eventually embark on an extended melisma together. When they are interrupted from their reverie by Alfredo’s friend Gaston, the offstage band music re-enters, emphasizing the privacy and intimacy of their conversation by suggesting that it had been playing the entire time and they were just too engrossed in each other to hear it.
“Ah fors’è lui” (21:12)- Verdi finishes Act I with a cantabile-cabaletta pairing. First we have an andante cantabile section beginning with a section in minor, in which Violetta questions whether Alfredo could be “the one,” that practically melts into major when her thoughts turn to the idea of love (24:50). She returns to Alfredo’s “mysterioso” melody, allowing herself to be swept away with the idea before discarding it…or rather discarding herself as unworthy of it. In the transitional recitative she declares that she should simply enjoy herself while she can.
“Sempre libera” (25:16)- In this brilliant triple-time cabaletta we find Violetta outwardly (if not inwardly) recommitting to her life of pleasure and excess via a display of opulent vocal fireworks. Yet, Alfredo’s “mysterioso” melody intrudes here from off-stage (28:56) or perhaps from within Violetta’s mind, demonstrating that he has fixed himself in her heart. She repeats her earlier assertion that it is madness, but his melody continues to pursue her. In the Salzburg production, Alfredo himself re-enters, but even without his physical presence it seems clear that Violetta is going to have to give in to love.
“De’ miei bollenti spiriti.” (31:29) Our first andante cantabile from Alfredo demonstrates here the relatively short phrases and narrow intervals that characterize much of the opera’s melodic character. Along with the consistent reference to triple-time waltz rhythms, these qualities form much of the opera’s distinctive character, or “colorito.” (Budden 136)
“O mio rimorso!” – In this cabaletta, Alfredo expresses his distress at having to go to Paris and drum up a loan to cover the costs of their current lifestyle. According to Budden, this is a late addition designed to meet the standards for the number of scenes each singer would expect, even though its blustery content seems a little out of character for Alfredo. (Budden 138)
Giorgio Germont introduces himself via a rather hostile tritone (34:34), and the curt dialogue between Germont and Violetta smooths out once Germont sees the deeds of sale for many of her finer possessions.
“Pura siccome un angelo” – (37:23) Germont & Violetta’s duet. In many ways we might consider this duet to be the core of the entire opera, the climactic moment of Violetta’s choice to sacrifice her love for Alfredo and herself for the good of his family.
In this duet, several of the conventions of Italian opera are altered somewhat from the normal Italian operatic schema in which an adagio cantabile leads into a brilliant allegro cabaletta. During this scene, Violetta goes through a veritable rollercoaster of emotions, while Germont remains sympathetic but firm, and Verdi structures the duet as a series of short contrasting movements that frame their somewhat confrontational dialogue. In the first half, Verdi reverses the tempos, beginning with the Allegro “Pure siccome un angelo” and arriving at the Andante “Un di, quando le veneri,” (41:09) although Carl Dalhaus notes that the Allegro is still marked “cantabile” and the rhythmic character of the Andante retains the effect of a cabaletta. (Dalhaus 66-67) The second half follows the conventional schema of a slow cantabile (“Dite all giovine” 43:43) that transitions into a fast cabaletta (“Morro” 49:01), but even then Verdi dispenses with the expected brilliant stretta finale in favor of disintegrating into a slow section that reflects the dramatic situation. Today this treatment of Germont and Violetta’s dialogue may not seem all that radical (it is far from the “musical prose” of Wagner), but an audience steeped in the conventional schemas of Italian opera would have surely recognized the break from tradition. (Dalhaus 67)
-Amami, Alfredo (53:08)- Violetta attempts to write a letter to Alfredo telling him that she is leaving to return to her old life, but is interrupted when Alfredo enters. After much confusion and tension, she claims she is fine until her emotions burst out, recalling the main melody of the prelude. She runs out and leaves for Paris. Alfredo seems not to recognize her distress and assumes she has gone to expedite the sale of her things until he gets her letter and discovers that she has left him.
– Di Provenza il mar, il suol – (58:26) This cantabile is the showpiece for the baritone Germont, followed by the cabaletta “Non non udrai reimproveri.” Verdi wrote to a friend that he considered this his finest cantabile yet for baritone, and Budden notes that the reliance on small intervals sustains the sense of intimacy that pervades the opera. (Budden 148) At the end of the scene, Alfredo finds an invitation from Flora and surmises that Violetta has gone to the party.
Scene 2 – at Flora’s town house
The scene opens on a party (1:03:44) with maskers discussing the recent split between Alfredo and Violetta and the fact that Violetta will be arriving with the Baron. A small divertissement involving party guests dressed as gypsies and matadors. According to the original stage directions Alfredo arrives to the party after this section, and it acts as a moment of fun to make the drama to come all the more intense. In our Salzburg production, the maskers taunt and mock Alfredo, and their sequence is used to create an additional layer of pathos.
The party sets down to play cards and the orchestra begins an agitated theme in 6/8 (1:11:30) to underscore both the excitement of the card game and the tense atmosphere between Alfredo, Violetta, and the Baron. Violetta interjects a short cantabile passage (“Ah perchè veni”) that suspends the action briefly to allow her to express her distress and ask for mercy. Alfredo dominates the card table and beats the Baron several times, although they are interrupted by the call to dinner.
(1:16:42) After trying to talk Alfredo into leaving and avoiding a duel with the Baron, Violetta lies and says she loves Douphol, the final cog in her plan to force Alfredo to leave her for good. Alfredo calls in the rest of the party and ironically compliments Violetta for sacrificing her life of luxury for him for a time before flinging his winnings at her, cleansing him of his debt to her and essentially paying her for her services. The party-goers condemn Alfredo and Germont enters (1:18:42) to reproach him, beginning the largo concertato finale in which each character is given a small soliloquy within the larger ensemble. We end with Alfredo privately remorseful and Giorgio Germont torn between his anger at his son and his pity for Violetta. Violetta’s voice soars above the rest of the ensemble as she declares her undying love for Alfredo. The Baron Douphol, however, is expecting a duel.
Act III – Violetta’s bedroom. The prelude (1:25:05) to the third act recalls the beginning of the opera’s prelude, emphasizing Violetta’s frailty. In our Salzburg production, Dr. Grenvil (who has been essentially haunting Violetta throughout the opera in this production) walks the party-goers out in order to change the scene. When the scene proper begins, still underscored by the delicate strings from the prelude, we see that Violetta is now quite sick and expecting the doctor. Dr. Grenvil tries to comfort her but confides to Annina that she does not have long.
Violetta reads a letter from Germont (1:33:00) that both recounts the duel between Alfredo and Douphol and states that he has revealed Violetta’s sacrifice to Alfredo and that she should soon expect both Alfredo and Germont to arrive and ask her forgiveness. In this scene Verdi reverts to spoken melodrama, as was the convention for reading a letter, but he underscores it with a delicate reminiscence of Alfredo’s “Di quell’amor” from Act I. In the 21st century we are quite accustomed to this device as it has become something of a cinematic staple, but here it is something of a surprise. Her reverie is cut off as she reaches the end of the letter and declares “È tardi” (“It is late”) over a grating diminished seventh chord.
“Addio del passato” (1:34:35) In this aria Violetta recalls her past joys with Alfredo and asks for consolation, although the melody is a variation of “Cosi alla misera” from her Act II duet with Germont. This reminiscence is particularly poignant as it recalls the moment in which she realized she must become a sacrificial victim for Alfredo and his family, an association perhaps emphasized by the transparency of the string accompaniment.
Verdi then includes a supreme moment of dramatic irony as a carnival chorus (1:37:29) is heard from outside praising a bull being led in procession. Our Salzburg production here again uses this moment as an opportunity to add additional layers of pathos as the revelers enter the stage and taunt Violetta with her dazed-looking replacement. The staging here is a bit on the nose perhaps, but even without it the ironic intrusion is incredibly effective.
“Parigi o cara” (1:39:30) – After Alfredo arrives, he and Violetta exult in their reunion and predict future joys. This cantabile section displays many of the hallmarks we have seen throughout La Traviata: a waltz-like rhythm and with a direct and simple melody that remains largely within a narrow range. The dramatic turn of the tempo di mezzo, however, is that Violetta is far too weak to continue. They call the doctor, but she notes that if Alfredo’s return cannot cure her that she is beyond saving. In the cabaletta “Ah! Gran Dio! morir si giovine,” (1:44:45) Violetta bemoans her fate while Alfredo urges hope. Rather than building to a stop for applause at the end as it did to apparently no avail in the original 1853 score (Budden 161), Verdi’s 1854 revision instead blazes right into Germont’s entrance.
Finale (1:48:02) – Violetta begins the finale concertato with a declamatory line accompanied by an insistent tutti rhythm in the strings. As with other finale concertati, each character is given an opportunity to intervene, but we can note that the lack of extensive melismas is in line with the simplicity and directness of La Traviata’s melodies up to this point. Violetta feel revived near the end, bringing on our last ethereal reminiscence of “Di quell’amor” as her voice remains almost expressionless until she rises to a glorious climax and expires, ending the opera. Although to some audiences today this death scene seems rather unrealistic, at the time it had an almost clinical feel to it, as some patients apparently did experience feelings of euphoria in advanced stages of tuberculosis. At least one early 20th century medical text explains that feelings of optimism, energy, and euphoria were common side effects of the disease’s symptoms. Doctors apparently tried to exploit these feelings in order to instil hope in the patient, although it was often too late by that point. (Fishberg 296) Likewise, we must also remind ourselves that in La Traviata a courtesan was able to have a fully realized tragic death as the heroine of an opera, advancing a radical break from dramatic convention and throwing open the doors to new horizons in operatic subjects.
Glossary and Works Cited
Aria: a solo scene in an opera in which a character expresses inner feelings to the audience, roughly analogous to the Shakespearean soliloquy
Brindisi: a drinking song, typically introduced as a toast by one character
Cabaletta: the fast final part of a solo scene or ensemble, which typically ends with a virtuosic vocal display. It follows the slower cantabile and transitional tempo di mezzo section, and in Verdi’s hands usually introduces an emotional change or resolution.
Cantabile: the first part of a solo aria or ensemble, cantabile sections are typically slow, song-like, and flowing in nature.
Coloratura: operatic singing (usually by a soprano) marked by virtuosic ornamentation and embellishment and a particularly high range.
Concertato: In this ensemble form, multiple characters weave their melodies together. It typically functions as a finale for the acts of an opera.
Reminiscence Motive: a musical theme that recurs over an opera as a reference to earlier events.
Scena: A typical Italian opera scene, structured with a slow cantabile, a transitional tempo di mezzo, and finishing with a fast cabaletta.
Tempo di Mezzo: a short transitional section in between the cantabile and cabaletta sections in a scena, it typically introduces a conflict or change in emotion.
Tritone: A particularly unstable and dissonant interval where two notes are separated by three whole steps. Over the 19th century, it became commonly used as a reference for something evil or scary.
Budden, Julian. The Operas of Verdi. Vol. 2. London: Cassell Ltd, 1978.
Dalhaus, Carl. Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music. Trans. Mary Whittall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
De Van, Gilles. Verdi’s Theater: Creating Drama Through Music. Trans. Gilda Roberts. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Fishberg, Maurice. Pulmonary Tuberculosis. 3rd Ed. New York: Lea and Febiger, 1922.
Rosselli, John. The Life of Verdi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
La Traviata. Dir. Carlo Rizzi, Willy Decker. Perf. Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson. Deutsche Grammophon, 2006. DVD.