Opera Club #1.5 - You'd Think That People Would Have Had Enough Of Silly Love Songs

If you’re just joining us, start at the first article in this series. As always, if you have any comments, feel free to share them with me on twitter.

Number 4 - Un di, felice, eterea

Starting at 13:17 on the Netrebko/Decker production (which as always you can find near the head of the first article of this series.)

A brief editorial note before I get started on this bit. It’s really easy to let your mental model of Alfredo in this scene look like this:

mlady

I advise against this.

La Traviata has a lot of gender things going on, but as I tried to establish in the “introduction to Verdi”, in its time his works were radical in its portrayal of women as having agency, and for having an appreciation of the practically impossible situation many of them had to live in. There are absolutely valuable things to be had from a “critical” reading of the dynamics between Alfredo and Violetta in these early scenes, but I think that those really only yield fruit if you first approach it head on and take their relationship at face value. Verdi was no stranger to irony, or to sarcasm, or to bitterness, and I think that his Alfredo doesn’t have those qualities because Verdi wants him to be as he comes across: as an innocent (at this point. That will change as we go through the opera). This may make this scene too sentimental for modern tastes, but I think you’ll enjoy the ride more if you are willing to buy in to that naïveté.

The toast has been a success, and everyone goes off to drink, except, suddenly, Violetta is overcome with weakness! (uttering those syllables used only in opera – “Ohimé!”, pronounced “Oy may!”, literally “Woe is me!”). “What’s wrong?” everyone says, “Nothing, nothing,” says she, and everyone wanders away. Everyone except Alfredo, who is worried about her. Violetta frets over herself (unaware that he’s watching), but listen carefully to what’s going on in the background in this simplified score (from around 14:00 - 14:45 in the video)

ohime

See the bass line? It’s the happy oom-pah band playing a march! So while Violetta is contemplating her immanent death, the party is whirling on behind them (most orchestras play this muted as in this video, as if the music is coming from another room.)

So now we have some interplay between Violetta and Alfredo, with him coming closer and closer to confessing his love, and her stringing him along for a lark, until he finally lets it all go (in this role’s big moment) at 15:35. An acting note: Netrebko overplays this scene badly, responding to Alfredo’s concern with deep drama. In the better productions, Violetta is trying to laugh the whole thing off (which is what her music is doing.) Here’s Renee Fleming doing the same thing, much better (in a stodgier production)

Be that as it may - now the cat is out of the bag, and so Alfredo makes his big pitch. This is his most famous aria from the opera - “Un di, felicé, eterea”. The summary of the song is: I saw you, I fell in love instantly, and ever since then this love has given me torment, torment and delight (a beautiful turn of phrase in Italian, “croce, croce e delizia”). In addition to being a famous aria, it’s also an example of Verdi at the top of his game as a dramatist. What you’re going to see here is words and music working together in a way that is more powerful than either standing alone.

The melody of the song is important, and it echoes the love theme we already heard in the prelude (although in a simpler mode, as befits it coming from young and inexperienced Alfredo.)

Recall the “descending dotted rhythm” from the prelude (it’s marked “con. espress” on the score. If you can, try to put it in your mind. Now compare it to what Alfredo is singing here:

felice

It’s different, but the same.

Violetta receives this confession of love and sends back her own song. Now, they’re singing the language of opera, so she tells him that she disagrees with words, but also with music. The words (just going to echo the first lines here)

Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi,

If that’s so then you’d better run from me, buddy,

Solo amistade io v’offro

Friendship is all I can give you.

And the music she puts this to is a light, flighty, and good-humored, literally sounding like birdsong and trilling. She’s not telling him off, she’s letting him down easy.

felice2

“I don’t take anything seriously”, the music says. And she ends with some heartfelt advice: “Forget me” (in Italian, “dimenticarmi”) to the same tune.

Alfredo redoubles his efforts, and sings his love song back at her, redoubling his cries of torment and delight. She, in turn, keeps up her defenses, “dimenticarmi, dimenticarmi” - but something is different. Can you see what’s different (ignore the tragically bad English translation on this score) (17:48).

felice3

Even if you can’t read music and hear it in your head, you can see this. She’s singing the words “forget me, forget me”, but she’s singing his song - she’s singing his rhythm, she’s singing his melody, and that’s telling us that although she’s saying “forget me, forget me”, she’s thinking “torment and delight to the heart.” The flighty tune she had just 30 seconds ago is dropped on the floor and forgotten. In opera terms, the music is telling us that these two characters are moving as one. This is what love looks like to a musician.

Since I’ve already said I don’t love Netrebko’s performance, let’s look at another one! Here’s Natalie Dessay and Charles Castronovo from the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2011.

That’s it. They’re in love. Interrupted by the partygoers, they have some innocent flirting (she gives him a flower, says “Bring it back when it fades”, which turns out to be “tomorrow” because apparently quality control amongst Parisian florists is terrible). Alfredo leaves happy (20:30), and so does the rest of the party (did you notice how the party music underlies so much of this act? It’s an essential part of what gives the act its unspeakable velocity.) After this song, Violetta is left alone with her thoughts (21:57), and her thoughts, as we’ll see next time, will lead to an incredible aria.

Next week: Sempre Libera, or Ragazze vogliono solo divertirsi.