Created to comfort and encourage
consumers cautiously considering a
song-filled sojourn at the
Initiated in 2007, J.P. and Sondra Cooney
annually create Guides for the
Opera Carolina production season.
They are gifted to the company’s Foundation for
education and/or fund-raising programs.
During the season, the Guides are posted on
the Opera Carolina website.
Greatly appreciated and effective in the
development of the Guide series for Opera
Carolina is the continual support and
encouragement, constructive comments and just
plain, patient tolerance of:
Maestro James Meena, General Director and
Principal Conductor, Opera Carolina.
Constructive criticism of
this Guide will be accepted,
(but perhaps, not graciously).
An Overview of the Commonalities and-- Not-so
An Overview of
Commonalities and Not-so Commonalities Among
Opera Carolina’s 2010-2011 Productions.
As cultural art forms mature, they also tend to evolve new patterns,
variations on a central theme, if you will. Opera is no exception to such
diversification; the three productions of Opera Carolina’s 2010-2011
season offer an enjoyable, comparative-case study of such change.
Three different compositional styles and musical eras, but
each opera created at a masterful stage of compositional
Each Opera Carolina production this season represents a different
stage of operatic evolution. In chronological sequence, Cosi Fan Tutti
appeared in the world first (1790). In both subject and sound, it
reflects operatic style in the latter part of the 18th century. However,
it is a product of Mozart, perhaps the most masterful composer of at
least that period, and his equally gifted librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
The composer and his poet partnered at the height of their individual
skills; their paired operatic product(s) are generally thought, the most
perfect of all such musical representatives from that period. They also
rank among the highest in the nirvana of “all-time, most perfect operas.”
Comparatively, Verdi was no compositional slouch. So far, he has
permanent historical recognition as an operatic master. His Traviata
while following the Mozart work by only slightly more than half a
century (1853), represents a totally different operatic style in music
and libretto. The work is often cited as one of the composer’s “big
three,”1 that show the Maestro in full control of his musical skills.2
As frequently observed in previous Guides, opera of the 18th and early
19th century was very much a meal of white fish and white wine, whereas
that art form in the bulk of the 19th and early 20th century was red wine
and red meat! Comparatively, it is musically muscular in sound,
Rubenesque in subject and frequently, as close to real life as the opera
stage will permit.
The final Opera Carolina 2010 production, HMS Pinafore sailed onto a
London stage a quarter of a century after Verdi’s conflicted courtesan.
Pinafore (1878) in music and subject does not directly represent
another evolutionary stage of 19th century opera. Rather, it is an apple
that fell from an operatic tree, and not too far away. However, in its
maturation, that apple represented a new variety of lyric theater:
Subsequently,3 the origins and attributes of operetta (as opposed to
opera) will be tersely touted up. For now though, it suffices to say that
operetta generally and in our specific Pinafore case, is accurately
characterized as “light opera.” The Gilbert and Sullivan English operetta
template was satirical and most frequently targeted the pretentions and
foibles of its contemporary Victorian era.
Musically, operetta is lighter than opera in that it does not demand
massive vocal and orchestral forces. While it has arias and ensembles,
they are usually constructed to deliver a message and/or move the plot
along, rather that exhibit vocal artistry or compositional inventiveness.
Dialogue linking the solos and ensembles is almost always spoken;
The other two being Rigeletto and Travatore,
Over his fifty-four year musical career, Verdi composed 38 operas (including
major revisions). Traviata was #19 in that lineage, right in the middle, and
premiered during the Maestro’s fourteenth compositional year. Another 19
operas followed, higher in quality, but longer in overall gestation (40 years).
Verdi was one of a few operatic composers that continued to expand his musical
skills well beyond the point where he had established mastery over the genre.
See H.M.S. Pinafore related materials. .
recitative is rarely found. Operetta is basically great fun done with
equally great musical art. Pinafore is one of the best representatives of
A large number of operatic libretti emerge from an already written
sources, especially before the existence of international copyright laws.
Such sources include novels, Biblical tales, documented mythology, other
operas, plays, an occasional ballet and so forth.
In the case of Opera Carolina’s 2010-2011 productions though, only one
of the operas emerges from a previously written source, La Traviata.
On its march towards a tuneful, tawdry tale, it began with an affair
between Alexandre Dumas (fils/jr.) and a well-known Parisian courtesan
of that period. Their relationship was short-lived as the love of the
girl’s life was Franz Liszt.4 Young Dumas was not one to waste artistic
inspiration, even if it was from a highly personal source. He swiftly
translated the affair into a fictional novel, La Dame aux Camélias. It
became so popular in France, that its ever-resourceful author
translated it into a play be the same name.5 Verdi was introduced to the
subject in its Parisian play form.
It is frequently speculated, the composer’s attraction to the subject
was its resemblance to the social hypocrisies suffered by himself and
his “without benefit of clergy” constant companion (later wife)
Cosi came to operatic life from no literary source. However, it is
frequently alleged that its source was a similar “real life” fidelity test
and outcome; it was rumored to have occurred in the Viennese Court of
Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor himself is said to have suggested the
incident to Mozart6 as an appropriate operatic subject and offered an
unusually large fee for its musical translation.
That is quite an interesting, but “other” story we do not have time for now.
Although in English-speaking countries, it frequently appears as Camille.
Occasionally a source will indicate the Emperor’s “wish” was actually received by
da Ponte. Whatever!
In contrast to the other two 2010-2011 operas, Pinafore was purely a
product of the fertile minds of Gilbert and Sullivan, with most of the
credit given to Sullivan, as the book and wordsmith of the pair. This
subsequently was the libretto creation pattern for all their works.
Gilbert’s sharp, satirical wit at the expense of the British government
and the Royal court may have been the cost of his long delay in
knighthood. He became Sir Gilbert a quarter of a century after Sullivan
was awarded a similar honor. The Queen was not amused?
Language. As is the case with Opera Carolina productions,
the operas are presented in the original language of the libretto. 7 Cosi
is sung in Italian. Da Ponte was Italian, but Mozart was German. The
language of opera at that period was Italian, so it won the linguistic
With Traviata, both the composer and librettist were Italian, the
premiere was in Italy, so the language of our doomed lovers was Italian,
even though they played around in Paris.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, now and forever, English! Rule Britannia!
Politics and Censorship. Censorship in various forms and
origins, has been an artistic burden. Radical ideas and unacceptable
opinions originated most frequently in artistic expression, especially in
Europe up through the 19th century. The three 2010-2011 operas were
each subject to either overt censorship or more subtly, social pressure.
Least you panic, your enjoyment quotient will be increased by supra-titles
simultaneously translating essential parts of the musicalized dialogue. This
writer’s bias says, “That is a good thing.” It permits you to hear the composer’s
and his poet’s language as originally created, but if the vocal artistry of the
singers are not sufficient to communicate the dramatic passion of the moment,
the titles will cue you. So relax and enjoy!
Most opera-goers and in fact Europeans of that period were multi- lingual.
Hence most any western-European language would have communicated, but
custom at least throughout the Austrian-Hungarian empire, dictated Italian.
As will be discussed in the Traviata section, censorship was Verdi’s bête
noir, and complicated many of his operatic creations. Traviata was one
of those. The composer was forced to move the time of the story from
the 19th century to the 16th. The reason, the censors did not want the
societal hypocrisy of the piece (its central message) to be a reflection
of (or on) the mores of its 19th century audience (which it was intended
to do). Hence, periwigs and pantaloons were thought to change the
In the case of Cosi, an opera could not appear in Vienna without the
Emperor’s blessing. Such a blessing frequently expressed not only the
ruler’s political dictates, but also his tastes. Cosi was not only approved
by the Emperor, but its subject was (allegedly) suggested by him.
However, Mozart’s later Nozzi, although making it to the stage, cost him
considerable aristocratic patronage (and income). The piece was viewed
as harboring revolutionary concepts amid the glorious music.
Specifically, servants did not know their place and as a result, masters
could be bested.
With Pinafore, both Gilbert and Sullivan received subtle social
disapproval expressed in social snubbing and/or withholding of awards
and recognitions. Gilbert was the more direct and frequent recipient of
such social shunning than Sullivan. Gilbert wrote the satirical words, but
Sullivan wrote nice tunes and his Lost Chord was a popular parlor hymn
of the Victorian period.
Satire. All three operas have at various times, been
described as “satire.” With Pinafore, it is no contest. Pure social satire,
intended to amuse more than injure. With the other two, a label of
“satire” seems to be stretching the definition and intent.
Verdi wanted to strike back at hypocritical society; Traviata did deliver
a message of “double standards”. However, the message seems muted by
the music and denouement. Its satire (if at all), is bitter and cruel.
Cosi if satire, pokes at both men and women behaving badly. However, in
the men’s case, it is sanctioned fun. In the women’s, it is “tsk, tsk.” Will
the double standard again, please stand up! This “politically incorrect”
plot is frequently cited as the reason the opera fell out of repertoire
for a very long dry spell.
The material in this Guide contains:
A non-technical, seriously stripped-down synopsis of each
operatic opus and its major musical moments [a.k.a Tersely Telling a
Tuneful Tale (Often) Through Alliterative Analysis and (Always)
“Alliteration !” You ask, “Why use this ancient and somewhat arcane
poetic style?” Well, it is fun to manufacture and judging from its “rah,
rah” readership reception, it must be fun to read; or maybe we are all a
bit weird. Whatever!
Why only “often” alliteration? Well, it all depends on where I was
the night before composing the copy. That stuff requires a reasonably
clear head. Capisce?
A background piece for each opera. It sets forth, albeit
slightly, the sociology and perhaps, anthropology of the opera under the
microscope. Why you ask?
Opera as any art form is a product of its society and culture at a
specific point in time. As that point regresses into history, the on-stage
and off-stage circumstances creating the opera frequently vanish into
an archival dustbin.
We argue that such absence is a loss to the understanding and
enjoyment of an older piece when heard in contemporary times.
Therefore, the individual Backgrounds are designed to enhance your
opera viewing pleasure through an understanding of how another time,
place and circumstances probably influenced an operatic product. Enjoy!
If you are looking for the Guide to be staid and
sterile read, you have bet on the wrong horse. The
material is liberally larded with at least chuckles, if
not laughs. It was constructed optimistically to be
“entertainingly educational.” (FYI, not an oxymoron!).
Libretto:* Francesco Maria Piave
*based on Dumas’s (fils) play La Dame aux Camellias
Premiere: Gran Theatro La Fenice,Venice,
March 6, 1853
Original Language: Italian
Where Do Find ---?
A Two Minute Traviata. [p.13]
Tuning Traviata’s Tawdry Tale (a.k.a. Background.) [p.15]
Trading on Traviata.
( a.k.a. More than one commercial game in play!) [p.28]
Finally the Opera! [p.30]
Who are these Pseudo-French Folks
Flinging Filigreed Phrases of Intoned Italian? [p.31]
(a.k.a. The Cast in Playbill Pecking-Order.)
Tersely Telling Traviata’s Tuneful Tale with Minute Memos
Mentioning Memorable Musical Moments and occasionally,
Alliterative Analyses. [p.35]
Act I. The mansion of our musicale’s mistress (in more
ways than one) in one of the better Paris arriviste
arrondissements. [p. 36]
Act II.9 Our cooing couple’s cozy country “cottage;” 10
coincidently though, convenient to Parisian pleasures and
pawnshops. [p. 41]
Act III. The Paris mansion of a friendly competitor-
courtesan of our musicale’s mistress; appropriately in the
same arriviste arrondissement. [p.46]
The opera was originally written in three acts with Act II in two scenes. Later,
Act II, Scene 2 became Act III and the original Act III became Act IV. Capice?
The Guide analysis follows the more modern four-act version. No difference
between the two versions except more time at the wine bar.
“Cottage” as in the Newport RI “style”!
Act IV. Our musicale’s mistress’s bedroom in her now
mortgaged mansion. [p.50]
Parsing A Puzzlement. (Overture versus Prelude) [p. xx]
Alexander Dumas, fils
Traviata Told in Two Minutes !
Developed for those in our audience with
“minimal to no” spans of attention or perhaps,
a severe cultural form of ADD.
Setting. In and out of Paris’s better neighborhoods and its convenient
and cozy countryside.
Time. Good question! If you are an operatic censor between 1853 and
1914, the (operatic) time is 1700’s. If you are a censor and the rest of
the world post-1914, the (operatic) time is the mid-1840s11.
Our heroine, a very popular sort-of "working girl” with wealthy
Parisian guys is throwing a “welcome back” party for herself. She has
been out of circulation for a while due to her operatic consumption 12.
Our hero, who for weeks had been “mooning” about the
heroine’s sickroom unnoticed, is fatally introduced to the lady in
question over the appetizer course at the celebratory party’s dinner.
Suddenly with the soup spoon “how-do-you-dos?”, our heroine’s
commercial common sense goes out in the window and love comes in.
Sweet, but costly. End of Act I.
The next thing you know, the hero and heroine are shacked up
in a lavish country pied-a-terre, Our heroine is financing the “slap and
tickle” but our hero really a few bricks short of a load, seems to think
the money is coming from Santa Claus--- if he thinks about it at all.
See Tunefully Telling Triviata’s Tawdry Tale, for the comings and goings
about the operatic date.
The disease is annoying, but plot functional.
The hero’s Pere, very much aristocratic “Old School” appears
and wants our heroine to give the kid up as their relationship is screwing
up his daughter’s chance for a good marriage.
She consents (whatta gal!). But no one tells our hero. End of Act
II, Scene 1.
Our gal goes back to her old life financed by the same old
aristocratic guy who had been paying the bills before our dynamic duo
sipped soup together.
Another lavish “welcome back” party ensues to which our hero
and Pere appear uninvited. Our hero thinks the worst of our heroine, but
wins a lot of cash from her aristocratic old guy while gambling at the
Our hero is never smart enough to “take the money and run”.
Consequently, between the dinner’s fish and fowl courses he pays our
heroine for her country “time and effort” by tossing his winnings at her
feet. Unfortunately, he does this in front of all the other party-goers.
Bad social move!
The old guy challenges our sore loser to a duel, the heroine
faints13 and Pere who started the whole mess just stands there shaking
his head. End of Act II, Scene 2.
Next thing you know it is Carnival season, but our heroine is
definitely not well.
However, not all is lost (yet); a letter has come from the hero
saying he knows all and will be coming “home”.
Despite the heroine’s obviously declining health state, a goodly
share of the cast gathers in her sickroom to share grave looks. This
small mob includes Pere14 who has now blessed the potential union of
hero and heroine.
Our hero rushes in, a great duet ensues with a sort-of humming
ensemble in the background. Our dying heroine then announces contrary
to medical science, she is going to “live” and live with our hero as an
“honest woman”. She then promptly dies. Damn! End of more than Act III.
Always a convenient operatic exit.
This guy always seems to be a day late and a dollar short.
Traviata „s Tawdry Tale.
John Berendt, author of the legendary best seller Midnight in
the Garden of Good and Evil writes early in The City of Falling
Angels, his latest piece of non-fiction
“The Fenice is on fire! --- The Gran Teatro La Fenice was one of
the splendors of Venice; it was arguably the most beautiful opera
house in the world and one of the most significant. For over two
hundred years, the Fenice had commissioned dozens of operas
that had premiered on its stage--- (among others) Verdi’s La
Traviata.15 --- The Fire Commandant had already made a
momentous strategic decision: The Fenice was lost; save the
Even with linguistic speed-bumps, there is a lot of name-
association irony going on amid the flames of the Berendt
passage: in a sinking city, falling angels and a fallen woman; a
lost opera house where the lost woman made (but lost) her first
bid for musical glory and so forth.
While this may seem overextended and nauseous-pun irony, it
is not necessarily inappropriate. Irony was Verdi‘s sub-text for
Traviata: his hypocritical ―real‖ world both demanded and
condemned the demimonde in reality and in his opera16. That
In English translation, La Traviata frequently becomes The Fallen Woman, The
Lost One, The Strayed One, or The One Who Strays. Take your pick!
It should also be noted that Verdi at this time was in a life style only slightly
removed from Traviata at least in public eyes. He was living with but not yet
dual public standard also probably played a role in the failure
of Traviata at its first Fenice performance. The reality of the
opera‘s subject struck too close to home? However, we are
getting way ahead of our story.
The Time of Traviata (Verdi’s compositional Period II).
Verdi‘s comparatively lengthy compositional career is usually
divided by musicologists into three periods.17 In the first (circa
1839-1851) Verdi was learning his trade (albeit quickly). It is
often labeled as the ―grandiose‖ since many of the seventeen
operas catalogued within these dates, deal with subjects of epic
proportions (Nabucco, Macbeth and so forth.) Such librettos
were enlivened by Verdi with large-scale musical sounds (not a
Period II18 (1851-1862), the time of Traviata is referred to by
some scholars as the ―Personal.‖ Luisa Miller leads off this
period and in addition to Traviata, it includes among others, Il
Trovatore, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, La Forza del Destino
and Un Ballo in Maschera.
Period II characters, as opposed to those of Period I, have
greater individuality, are less symbolic and also, less caught up
in grand schemes. In brief, they are more human.
married to, Giuseppina Strepponi a gifted soprano and his Nabucco prima donna--
- among other things.
Many musicologists do vehemently debate small shifts in archived “facts”.
Therefore, the content, labels and years of Verdi’s compositional periods are at
best, approximates. Your call!
When the right Verdian operatic target comes onto the Operaphobic’s Guide
schedule, we’ll get to Period III, but not right now!.
Verdi on a Roll (The Period of the “Big Three”).19
Background issues such as the need to support himself and
establish a reputation, dominated the creation of Verdi‘s Period
I works.20 However, they ceased to be influences on the artistic
outcomes of Period II.21 Quiet, by 1851 the man had ―arrived‖
economically and artistically. He was his own recognized
force. From the economic perspective, the composer was now
a wealthy man---- ―wealthy enough to retire‖ as he would
periodically threaten. He could pick and choose operatic
subjects and their frequency.
He became a major landowner, buying a house (Sant‘ Agata)
with extensive surrounding grounds,. The property was located
near Busseto, Verdi‘s birthplace in the area of north central
Italy where the family‘s forbearers had originated. Sant‘ Agata
would eventually become Verdi‘s base of operation for the rest
of his life.
From the artistic perspective, Verdi had become recognized as
the one composer in Italy and probably also in Paris,22 with the
continuing capacity for compositional self-renewal and public
tolerance for such change.23 To him the public and critics
Rigeletto, Trovatore and Traviata of course.
Verdi often referred to his works of Period I as his “galley slave period.”
The one exception was government censorship; it continued to plague the
composer throughout almost all of his career.
As the operatic center of France. That’s another story for a later time.
The base work in the Verdi cannon of compositional mature operas is usually
identified as Rigeletto (1851).
ceded an independence of style24 and forgiveness for his (very
rare) operatic imperfections. He lost no stature through such
gaffes.25 Would all his international contemporaries been as
One additional factor, nether economic nor artistic, that
certainly colored Verdi‘s professional and personal life as a
permanent fixture beginning in Period II: the operatic diva
Giuseppina Strepponi. They first became a ―couple‖ in 1847
while in association with the Paris Opera. She followed him
back to Italy becoming not only his mistress, but also the
mistress of his business affairs, properties and compositional
career. They did not marry until 1859 and their lack ―clerical
benefit‖ caused some continual stresses and strains between the
couple and Busseto residents.
Verdi who knew how to hold (and pay-back) a grudge, never
forgave Busseto for their treatment of Strepponi. However,
all that‘s another story. For our purposes the arrangement was
very long-lived26 and happy despite its ―interesting‖ parallels
to their operatic clones: Violetta and Alfredo.‖27
While Rossini’s long-standing template for the “perfect” opera had been
permanently broken, there were some musical and vocal traditions audiences
expected to be honored---, except in Verdi’s case.
Shakespeare is often cited as Verdi’s companion for such public toleration and
Strepponi died in 1897; Verdi, in 1901.
Over the years, there have been various speculations that Traviata was
actually an encoded view of the Verdi-Strepponi relationship and circle of
friends. Interesting and creative speculations, but can’t be anchored in accuracy.
Creating operatic words from borrowed goods. As has
been commented in previous Guides, operatic librettos more
frequently than not, emerge from pre-existing and usually
successfully public-tested arts forms, especially books or plays.
In Traviata‘s case, the lady-in-question‘s point of origin was
both literary and real world. She emerged first from the pages
of a book: the Abbé Prévost‘s 1791 novel Manon Lescaut. A
young beautiful French woman headed for a convent, while at
a rest stop and as the result of a spur-of-the-moment seduction,
runs off with a young aristocrat. They live happily, but poorly.
His family disapproves, kidnaps and hides him away. The girl
takes up with a rich old man then re-finds the young man. Love
again rears its ugly head; however, the old man turns her over
to the French cops as a fallen woman. She is to be deported to
the colonies, but the persistent young man finds her again as
she dies picturesquely at the side of the road. Sound
Prévost‘s literary creation en route to morphing into Verdi‘s
Violetta Valery had a side-step into reality. In mid-nineteenth
century Paris, one of the most celebrated demimondaines was
Alphonsine Duplessis. In 1844, Alexander Dumas (Fils)29 was
introduced to her at a party. During the course of the evening,
she became ill. 30 Dumas allegedly out of concern for her
health followed her to the bedroom. She was so touched, she
Massenet, Manon (1884) and Puccini Manon Lescaut (1893).
Dumas Pere had already been listed in the New York Times Book List for The
Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.
That pesky consumption again.
―admitted him as her lover.‖ Did not work out; he couldn‘t
afford to buy her expensive little baubles, so she didn‘t want to
leave her older and more wealthy ―protectors‖ who could.
They broke up quickly and acrimoniously. She continued her
entertaining life style which finally done her consumptively in,
at the age of twenty-three in 1847.
Young Dumas knowing a good story even if he was part of it,
published their little love adventure in 184831 as La Dame aux
Camélias. In that process, Alphonsine became Marguerite
Gauthier (a.k.a. Camille) and Dumas integrated part of Manon
Lescaut‘s adventures for plot leavening.32 The woman‘s
personality also underwent verbal alteration from real life to
play/opera. In the book, our heroine is quite earthy, somewhat
gluttonous and had the vocabulary of a fishwife. Guess all
that did not translate well musically.
The popularity of the book led Dumas to translate it into a play
in 1849. However, because of the daring and shocking subject,
striking close to prominent homes of real folks, the censors did
not permit production until 1852. Verdi was in Paris during
that year. It is assumed, he either saw the play or became
acquainted with the book. At that time, he was working on
Trovatore, but had a contract under development33 with the
Fenice management for a new opera to be presented during the
Quick writer or he had been taking good notes during their affair.
The camellias our heroine always wore had a more pragmatic value than the
romantic exchange portrayed in the play/opera. The lady-in-question wore white
camellias on most days of the month; however, red were worn on a few certain
“non-business” days. Oh those French, a tasteful code for everything!
As we shall see, the devil is in the details.
1853 Venetian Carnival season. However, no libretto was yet
in sight; but not for long.
The “Age” of the Singer. Despite Verdian clout,
operatic outcomes were very much dependent on the quality of
available singers. He as numerous other composers, tailored
their musical works to the available voices. Composers were
further constrained on compositional freedom through their
contracts with theaters. In advance, agreements were struck to
write a new work(s) for a certain theater, but often without
knowing precisely what singers would be ―stabled‖ with that
theater at the contractually required period to perform. Talk
about ―a pig in a poke!‖ In the case of Traviata and Fenice,
Verdi found himself stuck with both the pig and the poke.
The Making of an Opera Libretto and subsequent
trouble. The negotiations between Verdi and the Fenice
management were delayed by the composer until he knew what
singers would be in the opera house‘s 1853 company.34 While
he had clout and the ―age‖ of the singer was rapidly passing,
the man knew the quality of the voice presenting the music
could make or break the outcome.
It is implied at the time of the contract negotiation, Verdi must
have had the Dumas‘ play in mind as his subject; he was
especially concerned about the availability of a tenor, a
Verdi had periodically expressed concern about the mediocrity of the Fenice
baritone and a soprano. Both the available Fenice baritone35
and the tenor were at least acceptable. However, the soprano
proposed was not acceptable either physically or vocally. 36No
other sopranos to Verdi‘s liking were available for that season.
Therefore, to move the contract forward, a compromise was
struck: the soprano was to sing in the fall Fenice schedule,
Verdi could observe her performances and had until January
15, 1853 to give the management an up or down vote.37 On
those terms, the contract was executed.
Contractually Verdi was to present by July, the libretto in
subject outline form to Fenice. He requested a delay and re-
expressed his concern about the company‘s mediocrity. He was
given until September, but then produced no materials. Finally,
a libretto was presented in October, but was not Traviata.
At some point between October and January (1853), Verdi
decided the new opera would be based on the Dumas play and
called Love and Death.38It is intriguing to note that Verdi‘s
commitment to the Dumas piece was so total that he forgot
temporarily his Fenice ―mediocrity‖ concerns. 39
Verdi turned his attention back to Trovatore, which
triumphantly premiered in Rome of January 1853.
In the interim, the fall season at Fenice was a string of
disastrous performances. In all that, the soprano‘s
Varesi who had originated the role of Rigeletto.
On the delicate side vocally, but the legendary “fat lady” come to life!
Little evidence is found of the consequences, if the Verdi vote had been “No
way Jose.” It is assumed the contract would have been voided in the absence of
an acceptable soprano and the opera abandoned at least for Fenice.
More of that title later.
performances were as poor as Verdi anticipated. Unfortunately,
probably due to the Trovatore premiere efforts, he missed the
contractual date to release her. While he accepted the legal
bind in which he had put himself and his operatic child, he
tried another ―out‖ with Fenice – he indicated he might be too
―ill‖ to finish the opera in time.
Piave, Verdi‘s long suffering librettist, also a stage director at
Fenice,40 was dispatched to Sant‘ Agata to persuade the
composer: finish the damn opera, accept the soprano and let us
get on with it, March is just around the corner! In February,
Verdi conveyed to Fenice through a letter (below) borne by
poor Piave, the composer‘s ―sort-of‖ acquiescence.
A Verdian Curse. “Not only is Salvini (the soprano!), but the
entire company is unworthy of the Gran Teatro La Fenice. I do
not know if my indisposition will allow me to finish the opera, and
whilst this uncertainty continues, there is no point in the
management signing up other artists. So let’s settle for Salvini
and company, but
I hereby declare that if the opera is given, I shall hope for
nothing from the outcome, in fact it will be an utter failure.”
Upon receipt of the ―curse,‖ another delegation was dispatched
to Sant‘ Agata hopefully to bring the imbroglio to a best a
mediocre win for all. It was successful! Piave returned from
the second delegation with large sections of the score;41
Operatic stage directors and orchestra conductors were evolutionary products
of Italian opera in the 1850’s. An interesting story, but not now.
Verdi had often stated that once a subject had been selected, the opera was
“as good as written.” To him, the subject and its libretto were all. If they
inspired him, the music rapidly flowed. He was a person of his word; it is
estimated that the Traviata score was written in less than four weeks.
rehearsals began in late February, Verdi himself appeared for
the final supervision.
Don‘t exhale yet. There have been other problems going on in
the background of which we have kept you ignorant.
The Traviata Spin: Censors and Sensibility. What
artistic products were socially accepted and/or tolerated in
Paris were not necessarily the same as in major Italian cities.
The Dumas book in its time was contemporary as was the
subsequent play. While the sordidness of the book was
necessarily toned down for the stage, the subject was very
much set in the ―here and now;‖ more problematic, it was very
much proclaiming the hypocrisy of ―polite‖ French society.
The heroine loves above her position. She selflessly abandons
her love quest and--- here‘s the shocking part----, returns to her
socially sanctioned role as a ―whore.‖42 In other times at least
in plays, books and operas, she would have had the good taste
to enter a convent, go mad or at least, commit suicide. Not
here! She goes back to work.
Censorship almost constantly43 had been Verdi‘s ―bête noir.‖
To placate potential public moral damage or control political
unrest, plot logic and characters were slashed and burned at
Verdi’s word to describe his and Dumas’ heroine. Whatever happened to
“courtesan,” it has a much nicer ring to it?
Most famously, Un Ballo was moved from 19th century Swedish monarchy to 18th
century colonial Boston. It was ok to kill off democratic leaders, but not
will by the civil censors or those of the opera house
At the time of Traviata, censorship was on the wane and
would all but totally disappear by 1860 with the final
unification of Italy. In the case of the fallen Parisian lady now
coming to Venice, the problem did not emerge from civil or
church authorities, it came from the prudish Fenice
The sensibilities of the Fenice audience had to be protected
from a confrontation with that point of aristocratic society
where moral and ―worldly‖ values got ground up in the
rewards of ―commercial enterprise.‖
Verdi set the opera in his contemporary time and did Dumas.
However, the planned over-the-border transition didn‘t
recognize that what‘s nice in Paris is nasty in Venice (of all
places!). Fenice censors decreed that the costumes of the
singers and the settings could not be contemporary; that would
be shocking and scandalous even if the setting was that
cesspool of sin, Paris. The time would be moved to the 1700‘s.
A one hundred and fifty year backward movement was
sufficient to blind-side the Venetian audience from the
contemporary-reality base of the piece.
A donnybrook ensued. Verdi was willing to give in to a
backward movement as long as the music remained sacrosanct,
but please, no wigs! Pick an earlier time without wigs. Well, he
lost that one too.
However, the man did know how to pick his battles and with
other more artistically serious issues on his plate, he walked
away from this small-minded costume issue. Therefore, when
Violetta and Alfredo first ran to that country house they did so
in costumes of the court of Louis the XIV complete with wigs.
While Verdi‘s walk-away may have made strategic sense, it
may have assisted in fulfilling the composer‘s curse. Stay
Doom Delivered, as Predicted. Verdi not only knew
how to pick his battles, he knew how to pick his curses. The
premiere of Traviata was a fiasco. The major, but not only,
problem was the singers. The tenor was going through a very
difficult vocal patch and also, was seriously hoarse; the
baritone unfortunately had stayed too long with a very
successful career, his voice was largely a shambles; however,
the soprano and original cause for concern, was in magnificent
and appropriate voice. Unfortunately, her physical appearance
made her very unbelievable in the role of Violetta. When
Doctor Grenvil announced late in the opera that the heroine has
consumption, it was reported the Fenice audience broke out in
protracted and derisive laughter. Nine more performances
followed during the first Fenice engagement and despite the
fiasco premiere, it did limp out of town with some dignity.
Fourteen months later, it went back on the boards with some
musical revisions by Verdi44 and again with Piave as stage
He subsequently claimed the changes largely in Act II were important to him
musically, but from an audience perspective would present little difference in
director, but at a new theater –Teatro San Benedetto. Also, a
new tenor, baritone and soprano all vocally and visually
acceptable to the Maestro. It was an overwhelming success.
Within two years, it became also an overwhelming
It was not until 191445 that the casts shed French 1700s
costumes for those of 1840‘s Paris. Temporally, it became
contemporary with Verdi‘s era; it should be noted, for today‘s
audiences, the point is still communicated in terms of ―old-
fashioned times.‖ Couldn‘t happen today,--- could it?
The Blame Game. Let‘s leave the last words to Verdi, ―La
Traviata last night was a fiasco. Is it my fault or that of the
singers? Only time will tell.‖
Fenice promotional poster for Traviata‟s
1853-1914, more than three generations. Seems a long time to protect public
sensibilities, even Italian. But, whatever--- we finally got rid of those damned
wigs! Verdi would be pleased.
Trading on Traviata:
More Than One Commercial
Game in Play.46
In 1872, some twenty years after
Traviata’’s 1853 debut, the debut of
color lithography made mass
advertising of commercial product a
marketing possibility. In 1865, between those two preceding bows, a German
chemist, Baron Justus von Liebig invented an extract of meat spread. It was
intended as a low-cost and comparatively tasty alternative to the real thing. At
that time, meat in Europe was generally so expensive as to keep it off the tables
of all except the hoi oligoi’s.
Liebig’s problem with his pasty-brainchild was not the product; it was how to
promote its merits widely and inexpensively to the public. Serendipitously, the
owner of a Parisian department store hit upon a gimmick that would both attract
numerous customers to his store and, be a cheap device to widely advertise a
product: trade cards.
Lithography made the mass production of attractive, colorful cards inexpensively
available; starving artists could be recruited peu de un cent paultry to create
pictures of interest on the cards.
Once created, the cards were issued in series, unusually six in number. They were
given free to the department store customers. When the customer or more
frequently their children, collected all six, there was a modest prize. Oh and by
the way, along with the scene--- Liebig’s meat paste was advertised on the card.
Beginning in 1870, the distribution of such Liebig cards (as they became known),
worked like a charm! As the cards and their success became obvious in producing
customers for the store and the meat paste, their use by French businesses
became wide-spread. (Not a pun!)
I suspect you are now saying, “All that is very interesting, but what does it have
to do with Traviata?” Patience!
Excuse-moi that painful pun!
Originally, the cards were bucolic French scenes, then later, historical sites and
persons. Opera, especially in Paris, was a hoi polloi democratically-enjoyed
entertainment; it became a Liebig scenic subject. In 1907,47 the company began
issuing a six card series of scenes from La Traviata .48, 49
Finally, the point! In the following Tersely Telling Traviata’s Tuneful Tale , each
act is preceded by the Liebig card picturing that point in the opera.
The cards are noteworthy curiosity pieces as they depict the scenes and cast in
the original 18th century settings and costumes of Traviata's premiere.50 They
are also labeled for the four-act production. The Liebig advertisement
“tastefully” inserted in each one, is a nice little touch underscoring French arts
and commerce scratching each other’s backs. Bit like the opera’s subject? Ne
La Fenice interior circa the period of Traviata‟s premiere.
Some sources claim 1909. Whatever!
The current US price (5/2010) for each of these postcard-sized antiques is
$40 plus VAT and shipping, if you are interested. We do not believe the Verdi
estate gets a royalty cut though.
The original six card set included two scenes from both Act II and Act III.
And one contributing factor to the Verdian disaster curse.
Who are these
Flinging Phrases of
(a.k.a. The cast, in playbill pecking order.)
The “A”-Team (a.k.a. Prima Donnas/Primo Dons):
Violetta Valery (Soprano). Our more or less twenty-
two year old heroine, a very much in demand Parisian
demimondaine.51 For throwing great parties, she is generally known
as the ―Paris hostesses with the mostes on the ball.‖ On the down
side, a consumptive,52 and we all know what that means on an
Alfredo Germont (Tenor). The role model for ―callow,
idle, but rich youth.‖ Perhaps somewhat younger than Violetta, but
clearly, less experienced. He seems to confuse a ―commercial
exchange relationship‖ with ―love.‖ At first curtain-up, he is
hopelessly smitten with our heroine, but from afar for reasons never
made clear. He only deals emotionally in blacks or whites; no ―skies
of grey‖ for this guy. As a consequence of his emotional hair-
trigger, he makes a fool of himself a lot and in public.
Giorgio Germont (Baritone). The wealthy father of
our immature hero, he is from an out-of-town province because he
knows what the scoring is really all about ―in-town.‖ Due to his
According to those who know, promiscuity does not necessarily come as part of
this job description—sort of like a Geisha, I guess.
And continually advertises the fact and do others in her circle. Do not want
anyone way back in the Balcony to miss the point.
country-coloring, he slavishly adheres to a provincial value scale. He
is probably noteworthy as the only kindly villain on the operatic
stage.53 Once he appears, he spends a lot of time separating the hero
and heroine but then, getting them back together.54 When not
engaged in that activity, he wisely and sadly continually shakes his
head and also apologizes for his son, a lot.55
Second Stringers (a.k.a. Comprimarios): 56
Flora Bervoix (Mezzo-Soprano). Violetta‘s friend
and fellow ―hostess.‖ While she is a commercial competitor with our
heroine, she is somewhat older and definitely has slipped to a notch
below Violetta‘s Michelin Guide rating. Flora does not add or
detract much from the plot, adds another voice quality to ensembles
and seems to comment on the action almost continuously, but
without much participation. Sort of a Gallic-Greek chorus for those
who might be missing the point(s).
Annina (Soprano). Violetta‘s maid, who seems
continually to hunt, gather, fetch cash, and the cast. When the
principals‘ voices tire, she steps in to keep the action moving. A
realist on the comings and goings of the plot, she knows a doomed
heroine when she sees one. By the opera‘s end, she needs another
job, but unfortunately did not get references before the terminal duet.
Gastone, Vicomte de Letorières (Tenor). His sole
operatic function appears to be as a friend of both our hero and
Think Romeo and Juliet’s Friar Laurence with his head screwed on straight.
He’s not indecisive, just plot-functional.
All these activities are usually related.
Technically, secondary roles and their singers. More cynically, includes anyone
on-stage of “scenic input.”
heroine;57 he fatally introduces them and starts their hanky-panky.
Luckily, though, he does those ―I‘d like ya‘ to meet‖s or we would
have a very short opera: curtain up, only one but nice, waltzing,
drinking song and curtain down. Also for no apparent good reason
(besides availability), he seems to have joined a singing Gypsy bull-
fighting troupe in Act II, Scene 2.58
Baron Duopoly (Baritone). Officially, Violetta‘s
protector. Unofficially, she plans the menus and other
entertainments; he pays the bills, but is not unrewarded. From the
get-go, he intuitively doesn‘t like Alfredo. Subsequently, the Baron
proves himself to be smarter than he would appear. Takes a painful
duel though to get that point59 across. However down to basics, the
guy really is not a candidate for Mensa as Violetta does him multiple
wrongs, yet he keeps coming back and paying those bills.60
Doctor Grenvil (Basso Profondo). If this were an
Ingmar Bergman movie, Grenvil would be the omni-present symbol
of death. Sings little until Act III. However quiet or vocal, he is
always the harbinger of Violetta‘s impending doom--- although he
does get well fed and entertained throughout the proceedings.
Marchese D‟Obigny (Bass). Flora‘s protector. See
Douphol (above) for further but identical details. Only the names
change, not the circumstances.
Yes, he is strictly a friend and not a client.
That is the way of the operatic world!
Remember Verdi’s point is that this whole exercise is really about commercial
exchange relationships, not love.
Giuseppe (Tenor). The butler that apparently comes with
our lovers‘ country get-away house. A true ―walk-on,‖ this tenor
seems to be omnipresent only in Act II, Scene 1 and primarily for
crowd control. He escorts folks on and off stage, but very
Servant to Flora (Bass). Blink and you will miss
Commissioner (Bass). Only one sung line, but whatta
role! He brings Violetta‘s ―Dear John‖ letter to Alfredo in Act II,
also Scene 1.
A Very Full-Throated Parisian Chorus: Idle, aristocratic and
rich ―protecting‖ males and their female protect-ees, a band of
Gypsies who for some reason seems to wander around upscale Paris
neighborhoods and last, but not least --- matadors, picadors etc.63
It is rumored that Caruso got his first big vocal break with this part.
The part is so small that in some cast lists, does not even make the cut.
Do not ask!
Tersely Telling Traviata‟s Tuneful Tale with
Occasional Alliterative Analysis, but
Always Minute Memos Mentioning
Memorable Musical Moments
The music introducing Traviata is in true prelude format.64 While it
contains certain melodies to be heard later in the opera, overall it was
clearly designed to be a miniature musical portrait of the heroine in
four minutes or less.
The introductory music is quiet throughout and has a delusional
dreamlike quality. Its first theme, Violetta as the frail consumptive,
is slow, quiet and almost dirge-like. It will be heard again at the
beginning of Act III. The second and main theme builds a picture
of the heroine in her ―prime,‖ entertaining and flirtatious. While
plaintive and undulating, it has a waltz-like rhythm. As the theme
repeats, it grows in volume and becomes more sprightly and
happier. Then as it begins to lose volume, it repeats several times
its introductory lines but incompletely and brokenly. It fades in a
Originally, the Traviata Prelude was performed before the Act I
curtain rose. However, today it is often played with the curtain up.65
Violetta is seen in her bedroom or wandering about the Paris house
For those overly eager to know the “full truth” about the prelude versus the
overture, see p.
Largely copying Franco Zeffirelli’s Traviata staging at the Metropolitan Opera
and in his movie version.
quite ill and delusional, seemingly having flashbacks to her romance
with Alfredo. At the musical point where the Act I curtain would
normally rise, modern stage machinery transforms the bedroom or
whatever, into a lavish dining / ballroom in Violetta‘s on-loan
mansion, peopled with revelers.
Setting: Paris’s better town and country neighborhoods.
Time: Let’s not go through all that again, pick your own
Act I (August), A Salon in Violetta‟s Paris House.
A grand party is beginning.
“You are so beautiful that this must be heaven!”
(In the original Opera-Comique Paris production of Traviata, the characters were differently named than
today. “Roldolphe d’Orbel” in the above, is now Alfredo Germont.)
Let’s Party! The orchestra takes a brief breath at the end of the
Prelude and then with a blast of percussion and brass ohm-pa-pa‘s
throws us into the middle of a lavish party with Verdian choral
Dell’ invito trascorsa é giál’ora. / The hour for which you were
invited is already passed.
66 As the action begins, latecomers to the soiree enter including
See Background, for the comings and goings about the operatic date.
Flora, the Marquis, the Baron and the omni-present Doctor. To
the choral question of, ―Why are you late?‖ They have been
gambling at Flora‘s and the time flew by.
Violetta is asked about the state of her health considering all her
partying. She indicates her current philosophy of life: she is
enjoying the festivities because she dedicates herself to pleasure and
is accustomed to easing her illness suffering with ―this‖ medicine
In Alfredo Germont, o signora /Alfredo Germont, Madame.
Violetta‘s friend Gastone also enters with the latecomers. He brings
with him his friend, Alfredo whom he fatally introduces to our
heroine. Dinner is served67 and Violetta interestingly seats herself
between Alfredo and Gastone rather than with her protector (a.k.a.
Sugar Daddy) the Baron. That poor guy is left to sit with Flora and
her protector, the Marquis.68
As the musical conversation unfolds, Gastone tells Violetta that
Alfredo had come to her home every day while she was sick.
Violetta then informs the Baron that Alfredo‘s gesture was more
than the Baron did.69 That prompts the Baron to indicate to Flora,
―That young man annoys me.‖
Just when things are getting testy, a drinking-song (Brindisi)70 is
proposed to accompany the already liberally flowing wine. The
Baron for obvious reasons, is asked to lead off, but he demurs. That
was a bad move on his part; Alfredo gets the final vote to lead off the
game and he does.
Sometimes to save on food costs, a cheap opera company will trash the dinner
setting and eating, but keep the wine flowing during the ensuing musical
conversation. Violetta would never make it as a chief of protocol.
Not a tactful move on our heroine’s part #1.
Not a tactful move #2. With #3, she may be looking for a new protector.
A Brindisi in those times was not an old college chug-a-lug song, but a musical
rhyming game with couplets/refrains tossed back and forth among the guests.
Libianmo ne’ lieti calieri--- /
Let us drink from the goblets of joy.
This beautiful, ensemble waltz piece with a beer hall beat, today
is so popular that it frequently threatens to become an operatic
sing-along with the audience joining in. It is contagious, but
restrain yourself. Not good form! Violetta subsequently joins in
with full choral support. In her versifying portion, Violetta inserts
her philosophy of life, ―In life everything is folly which does not
bring pleasure.‖ It all ends brilliantly but with Violetta appraising
Alfredo in more than a just friendly manner.
She informs him musically, life is nothing but pleasure. He corrects
her indicating that pleasure is ok, but only as long as one is not in
love. Violetta knowingly responds that she does not know of love.
This Alfredo kid should have taken the message and gotten outta
here, but he‘s not too swift even though aristocratic and in line to be
Music is heard in the off-stage ballroom and at Violetta‘s suggestion,
the guests begin to move in that direction. Violetta suddenly has a
spell of illness71 and remains behind. Alfredo shortly returns to
inquire about her ―health.‖ Sure! However, he does advise her that
she must take better care of herself, she cannot go on being a party
girl, it will kill her.
Alfredo wants to take care of her because no one but himself ―loves‖
her. She laughs at this, but quickly begins to wonder if she might
not have a winner here. He indicates he has loved her for more than a
year and that begins their great duet.
That pesky consumption intrudes at the damnedest times.
Un di, felice eterea /
One day happily, radiantly you shone upon me.
In his part, Alfredo is truly the lovesick schoolboy mooning
about his ‗girl‖ and love. Violetta for her part, tells him to ―flee
from her;‖ she can only offer friendship and clearly, that is not
what he has in mind. The duet ends often with a kiss. Gastone
interrupts to see why they are not dancing. One look and he
Alfredo in response to Violetta‘s ―flee‖ advice, decides to call it a
night. Our heroine clearly beginning to think about the ―love‖ thing,
gives him a camellia72 she‘s been wearing. She asks him to bring it
back to her when it has wilted.73 They both conclude that will be
―tomorrow.‖74 He leaves a very happy man.
Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora /
In the sky, the dawn awakens.
Since dawn is approaching, the rest of the guests in a massive
ensemble, also decide to leave. They indicate that Paris is so full
of on-going entertainments that they need their sleep to restore
their ―zest‖ to consume more entertainments. Convoluted
thinking, but it makes the point. It also leaves Violetta very much
alone, center stage and ready for her very big Verdian moment.
Violetta’s tre sezioni cantate soliloquio /
Violetta’s three section sung soliloquy.*
Violetta‘s Verdian moment while in one continuous musical
sequence, does contain three sections each very different in
musical scoring and somewhat different, in subject matter.
É strano! / How strange!
In the first section, Violetta ponders Alfredo‘s statement of love;
she has never experienced ―love.‖ The sequence ends with the
girl‘s question, ―How can I reject love for this life of pointless
enjoyment?‖ (continued next page)
Let’s not dwell on the color, ok?
In some translations, “changed color.”
Cue Little Orphan Annie.
(continued) Ah, fors’ è lui che l’anima / Ah, perhaps it is he
whom my soul-The second portion picks up immediately with
our indecisive heroine more seriously considering Alfredo‘s
offer in view of his past kindness. She admits to herself that
when younger, she had perceived (also like Alfredo previously
sang), ―Love was the ‗heart-beat of the universe.‖
Follie!...Follie! / Madness! Madness!
In the final portion, Violetta pulls herself out of these ―vain
musings‖ declaring that they are mad!
Sempre Libre / I must always be free!**
She then launches into the vocal climax of the aria. Here she
definitively states that she must always be free to hurry from
pleasure to pleasure. Her thoughts always fly towards new
delights--- and love evidently ain‘t one of them.
*There is a textual implication in Violetta’s internal vocal soliloquy that
perhaps her undoing and death will result from “love”. After all, Verdi
wanted to name the opera Love and Death. The Fenice management vetoed
that as they felt it implied a “downer” evening and would be hard to market
especially during the “gaiety” of the Venetian Carnival season. Verdi walked
away from that fight too.
**Verdi is remembered for numerous musical gifts to the soprano
repertoire; however, the Semper Libre (and probably all the portions that
precede it ) must be very close to the popular top of that long list.
Suddenly, Alfredo is heard (off-stage) under her balcony singing a
portion75 of their earlier duet.76 Hearing him, she defiantly restates
musically that she must always be free! Their conflicting
philosophies are repeated in parallel as the Act I curtain falls.
Specifically, “Love is the heart-beat of the universe.”
Today that kind of behavior today could get you arrested.
Act II (January), Scene 1: A Country House near Paris.
“ I will leave as you wish. May God forgive you!”
The Scene begins with a short, pleasant and
optimistic musical introduction. The piece is
generally thought to represent Alfredo‘s happy,
but restless spirit.
It is five months later. It appears that Violetta‘s internal debate
that ended Act I was resolved with love winning out over
pleasure, big time! The lovers are ensconced in an upscale
estate in the country, not too far from Paris.
The libretto lacked specificity as to where in their ―love nest‖
the scene should occur; most productions usually favor a plant-
filled conservatory or an outdoor terrace.77 Whatever!
Even though it’s January and we are not in the south of France. It’s these little
inconsistencies though that make opera a consistent challenge to logic,
continually require suspension of belief and lots of fun!
Alfredo enters in outdoor garb; he has been hunting. He‘s
really in good mood and as is opera‘s wont, acquaints us as to
in a two-part aria exposition. In the first musical segment
somewhat conversational in structure and musing in tone
(Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto! There is not joy for me
when I am away from her!), Alfredo expresses happiness
that Violetta has given up her past life to live with him and
they are in ―love.‖ The second segment (De’ mei bollenti
spiriti / With the calm smile--) simply presents his mooning
about love. It is at a faster pace that the preceding segment and
demonstrates clearly in tone and words that this is one happy
Unfortunately, the elation will be short-lived. Anina enters and
in response to questions advises Alfredo she has been in Paris
arranging the sale of Violetta personal possessions to finance
the expenses of their little love nest. Alfredo is shocked, he
didn‘t know---please! Anina also tells him that they still need
1,000 Louis D‗or. Alfredo will leave immediately for Paris to
arrange financing; do not let Violetta sell her ―stuff.‖ However,
before he leaves, he expresses remorse that Violetta has had to
foot the bills; now he will avenge all that. (O mio rimorso! O
infamia! / Oh, how despicable! How infamous!). Musically this is
the typical tenor to the rescue exercise; very agitated and
He also demonstrates to the audience that math is not his forte. He indicates
that from August to January is “three months.” As noted before, that is why we
call this opera.
declamatory. A lot of ringing phrases and fists thrust into the
air. Having vented his spleen and conscience, Alfredo departs.
Violetta enters and is given a letter (actually an invitation) to a
ball-bash Flora is having this very evening. Our heroine utters
the Italian equivalent of ―fiddle-de-de‖ meaning, I ain‘t going.
A gentleman is announced that Violetta indicates, she had been
expecting.79 However surprise, surprise; Alfredo‘s father
The elder Germont gets things off to a bad start by insulting
Violetta – she is living off Alfredo. She quickly produces the
evidence that says that ain‘t so and then asks Dad to leave. He
is impressed with her spunk, but he has come on a serious
mission. The kids‘ country retreat for a ―roll in the hay‖ is
queering Alfredo‘s sister‘s chance of a good marriage. Give
him up, is the heart of his request.
The protracted scene between Violetta and Giorgio is probably
musically, emotionally and subject-substance, the crux of the
opera. In the hands of two excellent singer-actors, it can be a
mesmerizing sequence making the observers forget all the ―bad
operatic stuff‖ they may have heard in the past.
The material unfolds in eight musical segments varying in
length, subject and musical scoring:
Pura siccome un angelo (The Lord has given me a
daughter). Giorgio tells Violetta of his daughter (Alfredo‘s
sister) whose marriage is threatened by the Paris lovebirds.
No, not that type of gentleman-customer, she‘s given all that up. She was
expecting the individual handling the sale of her property.
Ah, comprendo (Ah, I understand). Violetta thinks she
will only have to leave Alfredo temporarily, but Giorgio insists
that is must be permanent.
Non sapete quale affetto(Do you not know what love-)
Violetta protest the harsh terms. She is not well, she will die if
she has to leave and so forth.
Bella, voi siete e giovine (You are young and
beautiful). Giorgio pulls a card to trump Violetta‘s death play.
#1, you‘re probably not going to die, but you will get old, the
two of you will not be married ever and will have therefore, no
legitimate children. There will be nothing to hold you two
together for a lifetime, Alfredo will begin to wander.
Così alla misera (So an unhappy woman---). Violetta
gets ―the big picture‖ and Giorgio once more asks her to be a
good kid and leave town permanently.
Dite alla giovine (Tell the maiden---). Violetta gives
in, but asks Giorgio to tell his daughter of Violetta‘s sacrifice.
Giorgio indicates that Violetta is really a ―good kid.‖
Imponete (What must I do?) The two scheme as to
how to make Violetta‘s departure believable as well as a
permanent rupture. Violetta asks Giorgio to remain to comfort
Alfredo while she decamps the love nest.
Morrò, la mia memoria (I shall soon be dead!).
Violetta request that Giorgio tell Alfredo of her sacrifice when
she is dead. He agrees, comforts her (big deal!) and goes into
the garden to wait for Alfredo.
Don‘t relax yet folks. We still have a ways to go with this
scene. Violetta left to herself writes a note to Flora accepting
the ball-bash invitation and asks Anina to deliver it. She then
starts a ―Dear John‖ letter to Alfredo when, son of a gun, he
Violetta does not cover her distress and confusion too well, but
enough to distract the kid. Anyway, Alfredo is expecting Dad;
there may be trouble, but our hero will handle it. Violetta
agrees they will be happy. Love me always she says to the kid
and takes off through the garden leaving junior clueless. Their
final music together is what we first heard in the Prelude,
except this time it‘s with greater force and pathos, wailing
violin and cellos etc.
The ever present butler then segues on and tells Alfredo that
Violetta has left for Paris81. He‘s not worried, she gone to sell
stuff, but Anina will stop her. Then---- a messenger enters with
a note to Alfredo from a lady in a carriage---- wonder who?
Alfredo starts to read it, gets to the key passage (I‘ve run back
to my old protector and life---) and goes into operatic tenor
Giorgio enters in mid-crisis and offers an aria to soothe his son.
This is not just any aria though folks. It is Verdi‘s penultimate
gift to the baritone repertoire: Di Provenze il mar (In Province
by the sea---). The message is: come home, you can forget
all this nonsense there. Alfredo though is a hard sell – he is still
feeling very sorry for himself. Giorgio musically tries again
It also should be noted from this point on it gradually gets darker on stage.
Really symbolic. We’re not just talking just about the plot you know.
The illogic’s of the time and distance factors in this scene are really a hoot if
you are paying close attention. Best ignore them though, you will be happier.
Remember, that is opera!
(Dunque invano trovato t’avrò / Is it in vain that I found
Alfredo is still at the moment more comfortable with the tenor
histrionics than packing to go home. Then he spots Flora‘s
invitation. Aha! Violetta has gone back to her old life. He
dashes out for Flora‘s swearing to ―avenge the shame.‖
Everything is at ―sixes and sevens‖ so Dad decides to follow.
With a great crash of Verdian exit music, the Scene 1 curtain
Will Giorgio Germont screw things up more or smooth the
way to a happy ending? Keep listening.
Act III. (a.k.a. Act II, Scene 2: A Gallery in Flora‟s Townhouse.82).
“That discharges ( my debt) to you. I owe you nothing more!”
Traviata was originally written to be presented in three acts with the second
act having two scenes. For reasons not archively all that clear, Traviata’s Scene 2
is sometimes played as Act III with the current Act III moving upstairs to
become Act IV. Four acts versus three means more intermissions and those mean
more intermission booze income. Think about it.
It seems the change to four acts occurred during an initial Parisian production of
the opera in the 1880s. Some thoughtful soul has suggested a very literal French
stage director figured out, the distance between the countryside and Paris
required the travel time permitted between acts, but not between scenes. Don’t
look so put out; you know, I don’t make these things up!
Scene 2 leads off with a brilliant start. A lavish party is in
progress at Flora‘s. The action and the music (very fast, furious
and bustlingly happy) begin simultaneously. (Avrem lieta di
maschere la notte / We shall have a cheerful evening with
the masqueraders). Flora is welcoming the guests and
exchanging gossip (recitative fashion): Alfredo and Violetta
are coming; no, Violetta‘s back with the Baron etc.
The latest rumors are interrupted with the entrance of the
neighborhood‘s wandering gypsy troop. The Romany folk sing
and dance loudly and spiritedly with slapping tambourines,
clicking castanets and lots of stamping feet. (Noi siamo
zingarelle / We are gypsies--). The whole sequence takes on
a Carmen-like appearance and offers Flora‘s audience a flavor
of Spanish exotica. Towards the end of the sequence, some
members of the troupe move into the crowd to tell fortunes.
Flora‘s Baron gets a bad report – he‘s not going to get the
―faithful lover‖ award this month. Flora is not pleased.
Gastone83 appears costumed as a matador and accompanied by
a large group of aristocratic expatriates lavishly garbed as
pseudo-participants in a bullfight. What follows with both
chorus and dance is the Ballad of Piquillo. (Di Madride noi
siam mattadori / We are matadors from Madrid). It‘s about a
famous matador whose lady love offered him her ―favors‖ but
only in exchange for five dead bulls in one afternoon. Never
done before, but Piquillo‘s our hero. He gets his ―reward‖ and
there are enough bull ears and tails for all84.
Remember him, the guy that made the fatal introduction way back in Act
This entire double sequence in the hands of the right director with the
right budget gives new meaning to the phrase ―grand opera.‖ Musically and
visually it is a great experience for the audience. However, it has absolutely
nothing to do with the plot at hand.
Dance ends and Alfredo enters much to everyone‘s
uncomfortable surprise (Alfredo...Voi! / Alfredo, you!).
Violetta was expected, but not him! Then Violetta enters85 with
her Baron who spots our hero and orders her not to speak to
Beginning at this point and several times throughout the
remainder of the scene and opera, Violetta utters a small prayer
for the Lord‘s pity. This has frequently been identified as
Verdi‘s prequel leitmotif of Violetta‘s death. It had musically
also appeared earlier in the opera without words and at plot-
potential fatal turns.
The men begin to gamble with pseudo-matador Gastone
playing croupier.87 Alfredo wins big time and also manages to
implicitly insult Violetta several times. The Baron has had it
with the kid, but our heroine threatens to leave if he makes a
scene. The Baron then moves in to gamble with Alfredo but
loses to him also big time. Doesn‘t help the party atmosphere
much. Just before we get to the stage of a duel challenge,
dinner is announced. Everyone heaves a sign of relief and
rushes the dining room.
Shortly, Violetta returns having asked Alfredo to meet with
her. Will he come? Yes, she concludes, because he hates her
so much. (Invitato a qui seguirme--/ I have asked him to join
me--). Well, any port in a storm. By darn, he does appear. She
sure knows how to judge guys.
Musically their ensuing ―discussion‖ follows in recitative style,
a very bitter lovers‘ argument. Alfredo leads off though by
In opera, timing is everything.
Seems a reasonable request since he‘s now paying her bills again.
He certainly is multi-task oriented.
begging Violetta to return to him. She refuses with great
difficulty--- she vowed not to return. This leads him into a Law
and Order prosecutorial mode: who demanded that vow. In
response she indicates the Baron. Do you love him, he
demands? Yes, she responds giving him the ultimate lie. That
drives Alfredo back into his tenor meltdown mode; he rushes
to the dining room and demands that everyone come into the
ballroom—he has something to say--- and how! (Or tutti a
me! / Come here, everyone!).
Alfredo begins his very public tirade, in an aria mode (Ogni suo
aver tal femmina-- / That woman spent everything she
owned--). While Alfredo‘s words appear contrite (she
sacrificed everything for me etc.) his demeanor and intent are
otherwise. The crowd despite their objections, gets the message
as does the hapless heroine. Our hero concludes his little
diatribe by flinging the gambling winnings in Violetta‘s face
while he triumphantly announces, ―I call upon you to witness
that I repay her here and now.‖
The crowd89 is not happy with Alfredo‘s major social gaffé
(Oh, infamia orribile--/ Oh, you have
committed ---). In a magnificent Verdian ensemble, the
crowd and most members of the ―Second Stringers‖ as
individuals let Alfredo have it. They don‘t spare the verbal
punishment, but it‘s very musical and grandly operatic. Alfredo
does catch on quickly (for him) that he might have acted-out
inappropriately and therefore starts verbally abusing himself
also. If there wasn‘t enough going on, in the course of all this
Everyone gets back on stage rather quickly as they all had been listening
immediately outside the door anyway.
Towards the end of Alfredo‘s social suicide diatribe, Georgio Germont
has entered and heard.
the Baron finally challenges Alfredo to that duel that has been
simmering since before the dinner soup.
Everything and everybody reaches a magnificent musical
climax that should signal, you would think, the curtain to drop.
But no, we aren‘t through yet. Georgio now gets his licks in (Di
sprezzo degno se stesso rende / A man who insults a woman
in anger--). The some and substance here is that you are outta
the will kid!
Violetta, not wishing to be left out in the verbal cold chimes in
with her two cents worth (Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core— /
Alfredo, you do not realize---). She really has to work to be
heard though as everyone else is still going on. Now, while the
complaints of the others seem on target, Violetta is a tad
unjustified. She complains he doesn‘t understand the wrong he
is doing her and the magnitude of her sacrifice. Well of course
he doesn‘t, nobody has let him in on the facts of the case!
Now, with everyone having vented their spleen they all head
off stage in small groups eager to tell the town about what a
night they‘ve had! The curtain then physically and musically,
Act IV (a.k.a. Act III.[February]: Violetta‟s Bedroom.)
“Take this portrait of me, (done when I was) sweet and fresh----.”
The Act III Prelude is similar to that music opening the opera:
very quiet with the pleading mournful tone of a lot of violins.
The music quite simply represents Violetta‘s illness and
The curtain rises on the dark of an early winter morning.
Violetta is restless in her bed and Anina is asleep in a nearby
chair. The room is simply furnished; all the past luxuries are
gone, sold to pay living expenses.
Against an orchestral background the ensuing dialogue among
Violetta, Anina and later Dr. Grenvil occurs is a modified
recitative style. Violetta asks Anina for water and then the
Doctor enters. Violetta in response to Grenvil‘s physician
questions says a priest came to see her and she now feels at
peace for all her past sins; she slept very well. The doctor
indicates that is that is the case, convalescence cannot be very
far away. Violetta knowingly responds, ―Even doctors are
entitled to fib.‖ As the Doctor leaves, he tells Anina that our
heroine only has a few more hours to live.
Sounds of revelry are briefly heard and Anina reminds Violetta
that it is the Carnival time. Knowing that, Violetta expresses
concern about all the poor that are trying to survive in the
middle of the revelry. She instructs Anina to take half of their
remaining money and give it to the poor and Anina should
keep the rest for herself. Then she also asks Anina to see if
any letters have come.
Left alone, Violetta takes a letter from Georgio Germont she
had hidden and reads it aloud.90 In a beautiful aria (Teneste la
In the custom of opera, letters to be shared with the audience are spoken
aloud not sung. Don’t ask me why, I’m just the messenger here. Another notable
promessa… / You have kept your promise…) she lets us know
that he has told Alfredo all, they have both forgiven her ( note
who is forgiving whom!) and are coming to see her as she
deserves a ―better future.‖ P.S. The duel with the Baron is a
done deal; he was wounded, but will make it. Violetta then
observes, if they are coming they‘d better hurry, she hasn‘t
much time left. While lovingly sung and almost prayerful, our
heroine seems to imply the dynamic duo‘s of Germonts are
probably a day late and a dollar short in their concerns and
plans. She imagines herself in her tomb, alone and forgotten.
She probably has a pretty good fix on the limited attention span
of this group with whom she runs.
Off-stage music and raucous singing interrupt her reverie and
wishful thinking (Carnival Bacchanale).
The contrast between the off-stage whooping-it-up and
Violetta‘s quiet meditations present a very dramatic musical
picture, which I guess is probably what Verdi intended.
In any event, Anina comes rushing back into the room. Prepare
yourself for a happy surprise and sure enough—our hero
comes bursting through the door to some great and also very
dramatic Verdian entrance music. The lovers passionately
clutch at each other and launch into their great duet (Pargi, o
cara / We shall leave Paris my dearest). The gist here is that
Alfredo will take her out of Paris to the country where their
blooming love will make her well. Sure!
Violetta buys into his plan, but says they need to go to church
to give thanks first. However, she is too weak and sick to dress.
example of this quaint but nonsensical custom is Lady Macbeth’s reading of
Macbeth’s letter in Scene 2 of that Verdi opera.
Her collapse scares the devil out of our hero. He sends Anina
to get the Doctor.91
Violetta says quite frankly that if Alfredo‘s return can‘t save
her, there is no power on earth that will. She has a pretty good
fix on the state of Parisian medical science in 1840‘s (or 1700,
if you prefer). This becomes a cue for another great duet even
more heart wrenching than the previous one. (Gran Dio! Morir
si govine, / Oh God, to die so young.) The substance here
seems to be the lovers have now concluded that this thing ain‘t
going to end well.
Now the curtain could have fallen at that last point, the music
and text were ok to support it. But no--- the baritone wants
another crack at stage glory, so here comes Giorgio to make
musical mea culpas with the heroine who is fading fast (Ah!
When the baritone belts his final forte, metaphorically
speaking, we now move to Violetta‘s big exit song (Prendi;
quest’è l’immagine… / Take this, it is a picture…). Take this
small picture of me and give to the girl whom some day you
will love and tell her this is the woman who is praying for you
both. This begins quietly as an aria, moves into a duet with the
now sobbing tenor; and then both are enjoined with an
ensemble trio of Giorgio, Anina and the Doctor; he has just
rushed on, probably to claim his fee.
The sad parting sentiments now dispersed, Violetta feels a
burst of recovering energy and life (E strano! / How strange…).
Didn’t I tell you right at the beginning that she hunted and gather a lot?
She announces that she is coming back to life, but everyone
else but our hero92 knows that this is her last moment.
Violetta musically exclaims (way up in the soprano
stratosphere), Oh gio! (Oh, joy!). She then promptly dies on
cue while the curtain falls to a sequence of thunderous Verdian
I had also warned you at the beginning that this guy spends a lot of time
clueless about what is going on.
PARSING A PUZZLEMENT:
Before you depart,
a diminutive didactic digression
on the arcane origins and diversified evolution of
OPERATIC OVERTURES AND PRELUDES.
Once upon a time,93 an opera performance
began with no musical introduction, folks
just walked on stage and started singing.
The more cynical among us feel that the
addition of a musical introduction to start an
operatic performance was simply
management’s way of quieting down the
crowd and getting them into their seats. It
was not an artistic statement, peut-être? Whatever! It slowly
became a feature of operatic performances; sort of like
racing’s call-to-the-post, ne-c’est pas?.
Irrespective of its birthing origins, a musical introduction
became more “de rigueur” in operatic scores. Never content to
leave well-enough alone, composers began to introduce
variations to their operas’ musical introductions. These
eventually evolved into two somewhat codified forms, the
Prelude and the Overture.94
The basic point of difference between the two boils down to
the fact a Prelude leads musically directly into the opera’s first
Circa late 1600’s Florence and forward for a semi-century or so.
In all truth, the definitional distinctions between the two appear to be more
honored in the breech than the observance.
act; it is musically integrated into the vocal performance. An
Overture, on the contrary offered a discernable break between
the its musical conclusion and the vocal “sturm und drang” of
the first act.
Musically, both (artistically) are designed to introduce the
mood of the work to the audience; they are both in effect,
miniature tone poems. The Prelude tends to be shorter and
quieter than the Overture; the former was to end softly, the
latter with a crash of percussion (as example, the crescendo of
Rossini’s overtures). At one point in evolution, the Prelude did
not contain actual music from the opera, the Overture did In
the latter 19th century forward, both could or could not have
actual music from the piece; composer’s call
The later operas of Wagner as example clearly are preludes--
- the introductory music leads directly into the on-stage action
without pause. In his earlier works, the introductory music was
the overture form—the on-stage action began after the
introductory music was concluded. Further, that action might
not relate at all to the mood established by the orchestra in the
overture. In his preludes, the musical mood extends clearly
into the immediate action.
. Today those arcane differences seem largely to be ignored. Some composers
under the pressure of time, simply took from their bottom drawer, music they
had previously written (and even perhaps used publicly before) and called it “the”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
So our indiscriminate readership is aware which member of
An Operaphobic Guide’s “creative” team (JP or Sondra Cooney)
is responsible for which gaffs, the division of work between the
pair is, he writes them, but she makes them readable.
J.P. Cooney, holds a PhD in Public Health, definitely not a
musical education. He is many years retired from a long, but
probably questionable professorial career in university-based
graduate health care education and research. However, most
important for current purposes, he is a long-standing opera
enthusiast about that art form’s wacky, but rewarding
Sondra S. Cooney has a musical background by virtue of
education and training. She holds a graduate degree from UCLA
and though (semi-) retired, she has had a long successful career
in teaching, educational research and policy-development. She is
a knowledgeable and fanatic lover of a wide range of musical
types. She is also a formidable master bridge player
For their (to-date) fifty-four years of marriage, equipped
with a flaming red, felt-tipped pen, Ms. Cooney has diligently
pursued and purified JP’s errant and “gone missing” commas,
grungy syntax and banally baroque sentence structures. She
perpetually persists in her quixotic editorial quest, as he never
The Cooneys are long-tine, happy residents of a
small island off Hilton Head (SC), breachable only
by boat or Michael Phelps.
In this idyllic but eccentric existence, they are
companioned by the grumpy ghost of their
formerly long-lived, liver-spotted Dalmatian.
Major additional enjoyment to the island’s idyllic atmosphere is
provided by frequent forays onto and most importantly, off the
island by other immediate family members. That traveling road
show now touts up to twenty-one (21!) second, third and fourth
generational members--- most of whom at least go to an opera,
and some actually love it, repeatedly.
Encouraged by some never-top-be-named regional opera company
directors,95 the Cooney’s initiated An Operaphobic’s Guide96
series eight years ago. By the end of the 2011 season, some fifty
Guides will have been issued into an unsuspecting public. All are
done pro bono, the majority for the opera companies to use in
their educational and/or fund-raising programs; the rest for
unsuspecting, slower running family members, friends and even--,
strangers on the street.
Who probably should have known better!
Originally named, Irreverent Guides to Enjoying Opera.
AN OPERAPHOBIC’S GUIDE
(Series Issues thru 9.01.10)
COMPOSER OPERA ISSUE DATE
Bernstein* Candide #20 4.08
Bizet** Carmen #35 3.10
Bizet* Carmen (Encore! #36 4.10
Is love better the second time around?)
Bizet Les Pêcheurs de Perles #7 10.05
Blitzstein*** Regina #24 6.08
Britten* Albert Herring #8 4.06
De Falla La Vida Breve # 13 1.07
Donizetti*** L’Elisir d’Amore #22 6.08
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor #2 5.04
Floyd*** Susannah #39 6.10
Gilbert & Sullivan** The Pirates of Penzance # 15 4.07
Gilbert & Sullivan** H.M.S. Pinafore # 43 5.11
Gounod** Faust #25 9.08
Gounod** Roméo et Juliette #17 10.07
Leoncavallo** Pagliacci # 12 1.07
Mozart** Cosi Fan Tutti # 41 10.10
Mozart** Le Nozze di Figaro #27 3.09
Mozart*** Le Nozze di Figaro #37 4.10
(Factotum fun, redux!)
Mozart Die Zauberflöte #6 5.05
Mozart** Don Giovanni #19 3.08
Offenbach* Les Contes d’ Hoffmann # 16 4.07
Poulenc* Dialogues of the Carmélites #28 4.09
Poulenc*** Diaglogues of the Carmélites #48 3.11
(Encore, “La Terreur.”)
Puccini** La Bohème #34 1.10
Puccini** Madama Butterfly # 11 7.06
Puccini* Madama Butterfly (another “fine day”?) #44 4.11
Puccini Tosca #5 3.05
Puccini*** Tosca (a déjà vu view) #30 6.09
Puccini** Turandot #29 4.09
Rossini** Il Barbiere di Siviglia #26 1.09
Rossini*** Il Barbiere (Once more with feeling!) #31 6.09
Rossini La Cenerentola # 10 3.06
Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila #4 2.05
Strauss** Die Fledermaus #21 4.07
Verdi** Aïda #18 1.07
CONTINUED NEXT PAGE
OPERAPHOBIC’S GUIDE SERIES (continued)
COMPOSER OPERA ISSUE DATE
Verdi La Traviata #9 1.06
Verdi** La Traviata (Twice-telling that tawdry tale) # 42 2.11
Verdi Macbeth #3 10.04
Verdi*** Macbeth (A kilt-kicking encore!) #38 4.10
Verdi Nabucco #1 10.03
Verd**i Otello #33 10.09
Verdi** Rigoletto # 14 3.07
Verdi*** Un Ballo in Maschera #23 6.08
Weber*** Der Freischütz #32 6.09
TO BE CONTINUED
Developed for: *Atlanta Opera Theater at Georgia State University
** Opera Carolina
*** Des Moines Metro Opera