Opera Club #1.1 - La Traviata - An Introduction

Or, “She Dies, And It Takes A Long Time.”

I hereby call the first edition of Opera Club to order.

I’ll be watching, listening to, and writing about Verdi’s La Traviata over the next several weeks, breaking it down a number at a time. First, I’ll post some history and introductory notes, and then we’ll launch into the analysis proper tomorrow. I’ll be illustrating each number with links to YouTube videos, and will suggest others not on YouTube for those who really get bitten by the bug. If you want to watch it on your own, it runs for just over 2 hours, so it’s a fine movie night experience.

Questions are welcome, so feel free to ask them on Twitter as we go and I’ll try to answer as best I can. I claim no professional expertise, so others should feel free to give better, more correct answers if you know ‘em.

I’m going to be illustrating this with different versions of the songs from different videos, but if you want to get a jump, the version I’ll use as a reference is this one…

…with Anna Netrebko, from 2005, the complete opera, with English subtitles. This is basically the same staging as the Met’s Natalie Dessay version from 2008, with a different cast. This is a “modern” staging with a very sparse set and somewhat timeless costuming. This is not traditional; the “typical” setting for La Traviata is late 18th century France with lots of hoops and crinolines and corsets and white tie and tails, but in my experience this makes it feel very stuffy and unapproachable. We’ll no doubt see some of those examples as we go.

What is Opera, and Why Is It So Weird?

This is a big topic and one that I’m not going to be able to handle in a simple blog post, so I’m going to unfairly summarize in a super brief way that is largely inaccurate but sounds good. We can divide a lot of pre-20th century (Western) music into folk/popular music, and “high art” music. For much of the past millennium, most of the high art music was religious music. With the Renaissance, high art music began to find secular expression. A number of Italian philosophers (the camerata fiorentina) developed the idea, on basically no evidence whatsoever, that the ancient Greek dramas unified drama, poetry, and music and thus connected to the emotions of the audience in a deeper way than any of this crappy modern music people listen to nowadays. Despite the substantial handicap of not actually having any Ancient Greek music to actually listen to, this group of academics inspired the first operas. These were aristocratic, somewhat static, and centered around either ancient Greek themes (e.g., the Orpheus myth) or else telling Boring Important Stories of various kings and emperors. This style of opera (and its descendants) is generally known as opera seria.

An Asteroid Hits Opera

Meanwhile, while everyone was busy not listening to opera seria, people in the street were actually watching and enjoying the puppet shows and masked performances of the Italian commedia dell’arte, which was light, fast, funny, and accessible to anyone who likes seeing puppets punch other puppets, which is pretty much everyone in Europe. Around the late 1700s, librettos which were thinly adapted from commedia dell’arte began to be used for operas, mostly in Italian, known as opere buffe, or “funny operas.” Everyone in the world except for a few stodgy kings agreed that these were generally way better than the old style operas. To the extent opera today still has any relevance or popularity, it’s largely due to opera buffa saving its bacon.

Modernizing Opera

There are other styles besides seria and buffa. The two I’ll mention here are the German school of Weber and later Wagner (“Archetypes prance around in nature and weird stuff happens to them because SPIRITS”) and the “verismo” style of Puccini and others (“Instead of terrible things happening to a King, they are happening to a poor person.”) Verdi’s La Traviata is significant here because it may be one of the earlier operas that could be called verismo, telling as it does the tragic story of a non-noble courtesan, with nary a crown to be seen.

When opera works, it works because we care about both the drama in the story being told, and the music backing it. In the best operas, the music is an invisible character on the stage, emphasizing, providing context for the drama, or sometimes even contradicting it (Wagner, whatever his other flaws, was a master of this, having a character on stage declaiming a set of words while the orchestra behind him kept a running musical commentary explaining that the character was lying to him- or herself. There’s a beautiful example of this very dynamic in Act I of La Traviata that I’ll point out when we get to it.)

What makes La Traviata work so well isn’t that it’s in one or another category, but its understanding of the breadth and depth of human emotion.

Why, Exactly, Giuseppe Verdi Gave No Fucks

So. Verdi in the early 1800s is a young, middle class man interested in music. He had to struggle to get any success - the only person who believed in him was a rich burgher from his small town: he sponsored Verdi’s education in the Big City, encouraging him to keep at it even after the conservatoire rejected him. He marries the burgher’s daughter, Margherita, whom he adores, in 1831. He begins writing operas, none of them particularly successful,

In 1838, his 1-year old daughter, Virginia, dies of an illness.

A year later, his 1-year old son, Ilicio, dies of an illness.

9 months later, Margherita dies of an illness. At the time of her death, Verdi was trying to write a comedy. This work was one of only two comedies he wrote, Un Giorno de Regno. It was not a success; imagine the agony of trying to complete a comedy under such circumstances - it must have felt like an obscenity. His wife’s relatives, at the time, describe him as wanting only “to hide in some dark place and live out his miserable existence.” Verdi writes in a letter about 40 years later:

My small son fell ill at the beginning of April: the doctors could not discover what was wrong, and the poor child died painfully, in the arms of his desperate mother. But this was no enough: a few days later the young girl also fell ill!…and this illness also proved fatal!…and even this was not enough: in the first days of June my young wife was struck down by violent encephalitis and on 19 June 1840 a third coffin left my house!… I was alone!…alone!…In the space of about two months, the three people most dear to me had vanished for ever: my family had been destroyed.

(Verdi’s dates are wrong, but those who have grieved deeply understand that it is a state in which time has no meaning)

I focus on this episode in Verdi’s life because La Traviata is an opera in which a young woman dies of an illness, and this was an experience that Verdi had seen, with his own eyes, more than once.

Later, While Living In Sin

By the 1840s, after achieving some fame through the success of his crypto-patriotic opera Nabucco, among other works, Verdi cohabited happily with his lover (and, much later, wife) Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano of some renown. Verdi took some grief for this - his parents, for example, evicted him from their home - but by and large was not harassed about it. Strepponi took more direct abuse from the townsfolk who disapproved of their living together. Once, however, Verdi’s father-in-law dared to raise the subject very obliquely with him, asking, more or less, whether it was really wise to antagonize the townsfolk by his lifestyle choices. In response, Verdi penned the following smackdown which is so modern, so bold, and so righteous in its fury that even as a 21st century person it makes me want to stand up and applaud; that it was written in the mid-1800’s is nothing short of astounding.

I have nothing to hide. In my house there lives a lady, free and independent, who, like myself, prefers a solitary life, and who has a fortune capable of satisfying all her needs. Neither I nor she is obliged to account to anyone for our actions. But who knows what our relations are? What affairs? What ties? What rights I have over her or she over me? Who knows whether she is or is not my wife? And if she is, who knows what the particular reasons are for not making the fact public? Who knows whether it is a good thing or a bad one? Why should it not be a good thing? And even if it is a bad thing, who has the right to ostracize us? I will say this to you, however: in my house she is entitled to as much respect as myself, more even.

It was only a couple of years after this letter was written that Verdi wrote the three operas that he is most well known for - Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore.

La Traviata, (literally: “The Fallen Woman”) is the story of a strong (though ill), independent woman, a courtesan, who is frowned upon by polite society. She is the master of her own house and her own purse, who falls in love, relinquishes that love voluntarily, and eventually dies of an illness, having sacrificed her own happiness selflessly for her lover’s good name. One never wants to assume that the author of a work is just writing their life into their works, but in this case, it’s hard not to think that the way “polite society” treated women was very much on Verdi’s mind.

Tomorrow: A brief summary of the plot of La Traviata.