On Traviata, Verdi, and the rest

The camellias are blooming in New York.  The first four months of 2012 have seen four productions of La Traviata : The Met is remounting its stark production, NYCO’s nearly thwarted production hoped to attract some of its audience back, little Amore Opera is giving it a run at the Connolly, and Dicapo is capping its 30th season with an airing of that fabulous hooker.  It’s enough to make you sneeze. Yet I venture to guess there are some New Yorkers who will swing by all four parties.

I’m up at Dicapo, having a blast.  Something about the reassuring um-chuck um-chuck of each bouncy tune and the ingenuity of every complicated ensemble scene makes you listen with a gasp and murmur, “it’s true, it’s all so true.”  Act 1, that’s what love looks like.  Act II that’s sadness, that’s jealousy, that’s anger.  Act III, well that’s opera.  (Though surely one of the most inadvertently funniest moments in grand opera comes when, Violetta, impoverished and at death’s door, instructs her maid to give half her money to the poor.  See, everyone, she’s really, really nice, in case you hadn’t caught on.)

Apart from the tunes, which have Italians and Italian wannabes smiling like children, the mastery of Verdi is his deft combination of many emotions into one musical moment. But before we get to the moralizing, take a listen to how this über-Italian rehearses – Madonna sanctissima!

But back to the moralizing. Take a listen to the Act II finale, here with Mirella Freni and some ridiculous staging. Note the “angry man walking” music on Alfredo’s entrance about 00:23, not to mention the best choral lick in the show at 3:22:

So, by the end, we have Violetta’s soaring melody of forgiveness, Alfredo’s sudden regret, his father’s remonstrances, various grumbling’s from the rest of the men on stage, and a sympathetic chorus, all at once.

This is middle Verdi, after he had lived quite a bit and written many lesser works, such as I due foscari, and Attila that have pretty much fallen into obscurity. It makes me wonder why there is such buzz around first or near-first operas by today’s composers, when it’s such a complicated form that takes years of practice to master.

Being in the middle of Verdi was to my ears a contrast to the premiere last year of Nico Muhly‘s Dark Sisters, which I tried to write about delicately. The piece wasn’t offensive, but it was one dimensional, never more than one emotion at a time, and usually no more than one voice at a time. And while Verdi sure knew how to write a tune, I don’t think you’ll find better ensemble writing until Benjamin Britten.

Speaking of which, perhaps the most emotional scene in Dark Sisters is when wife #5 is unwillingly bedded by her husband, singing plaintively as she goes down. (No excerpts online, it seems.) It was creepy because that scenario is always creepy, but it had nothing on the cover-your-eyes rape scene from the Rape of Lucretia, powerful here even in a student production:

I’m just sayin’…..

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
This entry was posted in Amanda, Fun, Listening to Music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Traviata, Verdi, and the rest

  1. pamela says:

    The only-can-do-one-thing-at-time syndrome applies to Saariaho, as well. Wonderful music, very interesting if not always successful productions that I saw in Santa Fe — but really no idea how to write an opera. I hope these folks are studying Verdi, Britten and Wagner.

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