Opera Club #1.4 - La Traviata, The Drinking Song

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.

Why You’ve Heard This Opera’s Music Before

Number 3 - “Libiamo ne' lieti calici”, a.k.a. Brindisi (“The Drinking Song”)

Let’s get to the drinking song! In the Netrebko YouTube video this goes from 10:10 to to 13:17, but I suggest you don’t watch it right now, because we’re going to hear this song a few times and I want you to avoid fatigue.

For this one, I’m going to do something a bit different. Rather than analyzing specific phrases of the song, I’m going to talk a little more generally about aspects of opera productions that differ between them, and I’m going to illustrate it with different examples that show different facets of how a performance practice can interpret the work. I think this can make a huge difference in how one thinks about opera - if your first exposure to opera is a meh performance (and let’s be honest, it so often is) it can sour you on the art form completely. What I hope to do here is to illustrate what “good” and “bad” means (to me) in terms of singing, acting, and staging.

The reason I’m doing this with “Brindisi” is, twofold. First, I’m not sure how much there is to say about it. It’s a very straightforward, open song with very little subtext. This is one of those songs where Verdi was chuckling to himself, saying “Yep, people will have this in their heads all day and won’t be able to get it out.” It has a direct melody, it’s lyrical (in the sense of “song-like”), simple, and more or less has the rhythms and tunes of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. The lyrics can be found here, and reduce to “Alfredo and Violetta flirt while singing of drinking a lot of and living for pleasure.”

(The key musical takeaway from this duet is pretty simple: both Alfredo and Violetta are singing not just the same song, but the exact same tune. By the end of the song, they’re literally finishing each other’s lines. This is Opera-ese for (at a minimum) “These people are in agreement” or, in this case, “These people really like each other.")

Second, you’ve already heard it in multiple commercials and tv shows and movies.

So. Singing, staging, and acting.

If you say the word “opera” to someone unfamiliar with it with no additional context, this is what they think of:


(Image credit: from Wikipedia, created in 1876, public domain).

Actually, they think of a slightly modified version of that - the lady is usually blonde, and heavier. I’m not really referring here to the obvious body shaming where people talk about “the fat lady,” although that is part of it (and this is still a problem among audiences and critics today). The two attributes that are notable about The Opera Fat Lady Singing trope is (1) it’s implied that she’s not appropriate for the role, and (2) if you ever see her in a movie, cartoon, or other moving image she is static. She plants herself on stage, stands still, and belts out the song. This is really, really, really boring to watch even if you like the music. Although this doesn’t happen as much as people think it does, it does happen sometimes. The number of people who can actually fill large opera house with their voice is incredibly small, so there has traditionally been a great tolerance for people who didn’t (or couldn’t) act, but who brought the vocal goods. This seems to be diminishing over time, but you will still encounter it from time to time.

But let’s think back to the camerata fiorentina (remember them?) The point of opera was not just to be pretty music, but to merge music and drama into a seamless whole that had more power than either standing alone. As an experience, an opera that is staged with drama and verve is more engaging than one that is staged in a static and lifeless manner. Conversely, if the people on stage can act as well as sing, then it will be even more engaging. And obviously, if they can’t sing, all the acting ability in the world won’t help them.

So with those thoughts in mind, let’s examine three and a half renditions of the Brindisi. Frankly, by the third time you watch this thing the song is going to be wearing on you, so I am going to put the best first.

First, let’s look at a version from Aix-en-Provence that has superb, dynamic staging, very good acting, one of the then-best sopranos in the world, Natalie Dessay portraying Violetta, and a tenor (Charles Castronovo) who in this case I think doesn’t really showcase the song at its best (sorry, Charles. All my personal opinion.) As a bonus, this version also extends a minute or so into the next segment - you can watch it if you like, or stop when the song ends.

Now, let’s look at another version of the opera. With this one, I’m really going to twist your brain around. This is the Willy Decker staging (so the same staging as the Netrebko version on part 1 of this series, but with a completely different cast - Natalie Dessay (again) as Violetta, and Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo, staged at the Met.

So we can contrast these various examples in several ways.

First, we can contrast Dessay’s singing against Netrebko’s. While both have excellent technique, the timbre of their voices is quite different - Netrebko’s voice has a low, almost dusky register, and Dessay’s voice rings like a bell. Neither of these attributes is objectively better than the other1, but you may find that you have a definitive preference. You may even find one of them pleasant and another intolerable (more on that later). The point is, you don’t have to feel bad if you just don’t like someone’s singing. You can like and not like whatever or whomever you want, and indeed finding opera performances sung by people whose voices you like is a key part of learning to like the art form.

Regarding the tenors, I’d say that Polenzani’s singing is better than Castronovo’s in a few specific ways, notably that his enunciation is a bit sharper, and he generally projects a bit better.

Second, we can compare the acting in the two Natalie Dessay clips against each other (and against Netrebko). All things considered, at this point in her career Dessay was a much better actress than Netrebko, but even compared against herself you can see a difference. I’m no expert, but I’d claim that this is a scene where the formalist staging of the Decker production worked against it - where in the Aix-en-Provence version Dessay is loose, flowing, and in the spirit of the song, in the Decker production she’s just a little bit stiff, and I think it’s the staging that makes her so stiff. Likewise, I don’t think anyone would question that Castronovo’s acting is leagues ahead of Polanzani’s in this particular scene. Again, it could be the staging, or it could be the acting, or, it could just be the luck of the draw that these performances were the ones that were recorded, and on a given night one is better than the other.

Here are the questions I’d like you to ask yourself. Did you enjoy one of those clips more than the other? If so, remember that feeling the next time you see an opera clip that you like (or don’t like), and remember that there are all types of productions being staged. Seek out productions that are more like the things you like and less like the things you don’t. And if you’re me, don’t just seek out the best singers, seek out people whose singing you like who can also act. (Not everyone feels this way. There are people who go to operas with the score in their lap and just read it instead of looking at the stage, and will insist that the only thing that matters is the singing. I will assert without proof that you are probably not one of these people, and you should be glad that you are not one of these people.)

Two more examples and we’re done. Let’s talk a little more about singing.

Here are Luciano Pavarotti and Dame Joan Sutherland singing the same song in a stand-up concert (so it’s not a full production, they’re just going to stand on the stage and sing in this case - don’t hold that against them!)

I’m including this link simply because when I was unreasonably slagging off Castronovo above you might have reasonably been thinking “What are you talking about? The guy sounds fine to me.” Pavarotti is a singer who had a voice for the ages, and a known phenomenon in opera is people not liking these newfangled singers just because they’re not as good as [whoever the speaker was obsessed with]. Especially note his enuniciation - I’d be willing to bet that even those of you who don’t speak Italian could still tell where each word began and ended. So when I say that I thought Castronovo wasn’t that good in that scene, that’s the sort of comparison I’m making - “Good compared to some platonic model of what I think I like.” Lord knows that Castronovo’s “not that good” is still singing on a level that would be beyond my reach if I had trained my entire life for it.

One last example and we’re done for tonight. Here’s a style of singing that we haven’t heard before. This is Maria Callas, perhaps the most famous opera diva of all time, singing the same song with Francesco Albanesi. Her style is distinctive, people love it, and to me it’s like hearing fingernails scratching a blackboard. To me her voice sounds like an intoxicated sheep being murdered by a theremin - “She’s the Harvey Keitel of opera singers”, said a friend of mine, thinking of that one scene in Bad Lieutenant, and that comparison resonates for me on multiple levels. (Callas begins singing at 1:15 in the following video)

My point is not “Maria Callas is awful."2 My point is that most people think I’m wrong, and that’s OK with me. What you like and what the world likes can differ. Especially in America, because of the class connotations that opera has, it’s really easy to find yourself listening to things that you don’t like and thinking “Well, since everyone else likes this particular opera or this particular singer, I guess I don’t really like opera.” Don’t fall into that trap.

Trust your ears more than you trust anything anyone, including me, says.

Next time: Un di, Felice and other silly love songs..


1: I’m not a professional singer, so I feel completely unconstrained to offer my personal opinions here. Feel free to disagree.

2: Although, seriously, she is.