Thursday, March 21, 2013

Verdi's La Traviata: What's it all about, Alfredo?

This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts his third opera with the Harrisburg Symphony – a tale of tragic love, La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi. Basically, the plot boils down to “Boy Meets Girl; Boy Loses Girl and (this being opera) Girl Dies.”

But along the way it’s filled with not only wonderful melodies and great arias but also tender moments and heart-breaking drama. It is not only great music but great theater, all written by a master of the craft and one that has captured the hearts of listeners ever since it was first heard 160 years ago.

You can experience the magic of Verdi’s music with performances Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Tickets range from $12 to $64 Call the Harrisburg Symphony Box Office at 717-545-5527 Monday–Friday, 8:30am–4:30pm, or purchase online at There's a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

Students and children receive a 50% discount off single ticket prices. Students should present a valid student ID card. Student Rush tickets are available on a limited basis 30 minutes before each Masterworks and Capital BlueCross Pops performances at a cost of $5.00 per student with a valid student ID card.

You can read Sean Adams’ article previewing the concert at the Patriot-News PennLive website, here.

(note the "Scarlet Letter" in the title)
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Stuart talked about this up-coming performance during his pre-season preview held last September at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore:

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Our principal cast includes Inna Dukach as Violetta, returning after her performance in Puccini’s La Boheme a few seasons ago; Alok Kumar, making his debut with the HSO as Alfredo Germont; and baritone Grant Youngblood (who’d been heard previously as Scarpia in Tosca and Rodolfo in La Boheme) who returns as Giorgio Germont.

In addition to Harrisburg-based singers like Damian Savarino and Christyan Seay among the supporting roles, the Susquehanna Chorale, under the direction of Linda Tedford, takes on the role of the Party Guests.

Now, this is a “concert performance” which means it’s not the same thing as watching it live in an opera house – the Forum stage isn’t big enough, there is no pit, anymore, and I believe there are still rules about nailing scenery into the stage floor – but you will “see” singers as characters who interact with each other and move around on occasion (a kind of simple “blocking” for the action) and, perhaps most importantly, even for lovers of opera who may not admit it as well as for opera newbies, the translation of the words above the stage (technically, like subtitles in a foreign film, these are called “super”titles).

You should probably read through a plot synopsis before you go but you don’t have to, if you follow the supertitles.

Basically, there’s a woman with a “certain profession” named Violetta Valery. In those days, she was called a “courtesan” which has nothing to do with being a lawyer. It’s a thousand-dollar word for what we’d think of as a high-class call-girl, more than a street-level prostitute with a better agent. She’s quite the party girl, a famous hostess of the then trendy social scene and that is where we first meet her. Also, there’s a young man, new to her circle, who’s quite taken by her. His name is Alfredo Germont.

During the course of this party, she realizes she has an admirer and, after everybody leaves, she realizes she may also be in love with him but it would be folly: she needs to be free. After all, professionally this would be a bad move.

So between the end of Act I and the start of Act II, she’s made a bad business decision: she has given up her former life and moved in with Alfredo. Unfortunately, it’s not all “happily ever after.” An aspiring writer, he has no income. And then his father, Giorgio Germont (usually called “The Elder Germont”) shows up and tells Violetta he is ruining his family: as long as she’s living immorally with his son, his daughter cannot hope to find a decent marriage herself. And so, after much pleading, Violetta agrees to leave Alfredo though, when he finds out, he blames it on her old lifestyle.

Back to the party scene, Alfredo confronts his ex, humiliating her before her guests. Then his father enters and denounces Alfredo and his behavior (which might seem like mixed signals, to some).

In the final scene, Violetta is now dying of tuberculosis – she’s tried to hide the fact she has been ill for some time – and Giorgio has told his son the truth behind Violetta’s leaving him. Alfredo returns to her but finds it is too late. As Giorgio arrives with the doctor, the father laments what he has caused between them and Violetta dies in Alfredo’s arms.

You can read a more detailed synopsis at the Metropolitan Opera website, here – and read a review of the current Met production, here.

Here is a clip of Inna Dukach – our Violetta – singing part of the duet from La Traviata, Act II, with Alfredo’s father.
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The opera, whose title translates as "The Fallen Woman," was written and produced in 1853, the same season he wrote and premiered another popular masterpiece of his, Il trovatore. Based on the novel The Lady of the Camelias by Alexander Dumas fils (the son of the man who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo) published only the year before, the nature of the plot - good heavens, a courtesan?? - was considered scandalous not because she was a courtesan but because it was set in the present day. So the government censors allowed it to be staged only if they re-set the story to 1700 or so when it didn't matter if those people led immoral lives. It wasn't until 1880 that Italian theaters finally were able to stage it as if it were set in the 1850s, some 25 years earlier... hardly "the present day." Modern stagings can be more flexible, of course, but that's another story...

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There are lots of Top 10 Lists around and, depending on who’s compiling it or how they approach the data, they may differ in the details.

But on most lists about operas, three or four composers will consistently rank very high, usually with multiple entries: Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. And of these four, two are celebrating bicentennials this season – both Verdi and Wagner were born in 1813.

But there’s a reason these “most popular” operas are performed so often – they sell tickets. Why? Because people love them. Why? Well, the cynic in me wants to say “because they’re performed so often” but I have to admit, as much as I love Berg’s Wozzeck, programming it as often as opera houses program La Boheme is not going to turn it into box office gold.

It’s easy to get all snooty about the difference between great works and popular works.

Take the Oscars – Hollywood’s own kind of “Top 10” List – it’s obvious the films you saw and probably enjoyed the most may not have been nominated, much less won. The voting process aside, how many past winners have actually become the Classic Movies that appear on the “Top 10 Greatest Movies Ever” lists?

So whether American Idol creates a popular star who survives the flash-fame of Reality TV or not, at least they – and their public – had their chance.

Giuseppe Verdi was a young man who had written two operas: while writing his first one, both his daughters died; shortly afterward, he began work on his second one, a comedy, and his wife died. When the second opera turned into a dismal failure, Verdi threatened to give up opera – and perhaps understandably. In his autobiography, he writes that when someone suggested a new opera, he pushed it aside, but then the script fell open to the line “Va, pensiero,” a hymn sung by the Hebrew slaves during their Babylonian captivity and a melody immediately came to him – which became the famous chorus, “Fly, Thought, on Golden Wings.”

Not only did this opera – Nabucco – become his first lasting success, this chorus went on to gain him instant and, more importantly, lasting fame.

As Stuart mentioned in his pre-season preview how he’d seen Nabucco at the vast outdoor theater at the Baths of Caracalla outside Rome, when it came to this chorus, everybody around him started singing it.


Here’s a video of a performance of “Va, pensiero” at a summer concert on the main plaza in Naples. Notice who the conductor, Antonio Pappano, is conducting. Notice who’s singing – not just the chorus on stage: the audience.

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This chorus was not just about captive Jews in Babylon longing for their homeland. By reason of allegory, audiences in Verdi’s day saw the meaning behind the words. Northern Italy, then, was part of the Austrian Empire. The southern kingdom of Naples and Sicily had long been ruled by Spanish or French kings. Italy, as a unified nation, didn’t exist until the 1860s, so in 1842 when Italians longing for their own government heard these words set to Verdi’s music, it struck, shall we say, a chord.

It didn’t hurt that Verdi had written a beautiful melody that was both beautifully crafted but easy to sing. It became unofficially something of a national anthem for the Italian resistance. And the German-speaking bureaucrats and police could do nothing about it: it was a popular chorus from a popular opera by a popular Italian composer based on a well-known Biblical story.

And it didn’t hurt, either, when Victor Emanuel became the king who would eventually lead Italy to independence, that these lovers of Verdi’s chorus could shout their favorite composer’s name as a political slogan: Vittorio Emanuel, Re dItalia! Victor Emanuel, King of Italy! Viva VERDI!

So, early on, Verdi learned the importance of a Great Tune. He would use this skill – and it’s as much a skill as it is luck – and succeeded so often, he became something most composers would kill for: respect as a great composer but also the income of a popular one.

In fact, when Verdi died, after he'd asked no music be sung at his funeral, thousands of mourners lining the streets of Milan during the procession broke out spontaneously, singing "Va, pensiero."  

His “big tunes” would be sung by people in the taverns, played by organ grinders on street corners, and of course people went to the opera waiting to hear them. Everybody knew Verdi’s music – at least his “big tunes.”

Like “La donna é mobile” from Rigoletto.

Or “The Anvil Chorus” from Il trovatore.

Who could forget the Triumphal March from Aïda?

It's not unlike some of our most popular examples of musical theater today: whether it's Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables or The Sound of Music.

And let’s not forget the drinking song, the famous Brindisi, from Act I of La Traviata, “Libiamo!”

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This is a film version with tenor Placido Domingo as the young lover Alfredo Germont, who is smitten with a young woman named Violetta Valery. He proposes a toast – to love.

Here’s a slightly different staging of the same scene, this from the current production at the Metropolitan Opera House.

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The tenor here is Matthew Polanzani with Natalie Dessay as Violetta. Most recently, you might have seen it with Diana Damrau as Violetta and baritone Placido Domingo in the role of Alfredo’s father (yes, at 72, Domingo is still singing even if it’s not his famous tenor roles from earlier in his career).

If you can stand one more Brindisi, here’s a marketing ploy for the Age of Social Media – the Flash Mob which took place one afternoon in a major downtown department store in Amsterdam.

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Note the response of the woman at the balcony rail when the guy next to her breaks out in song at 1:07. Too bad things break down at the very end but the acoustics of shopping malls and conductor sight-lines (talk about a pit!) plus an over-eager pianist do not make for perfection. But hey…

Here are some famous excerpts from Verdi’s opera: in this scene from the end of Act I, soprano Anja Harteros sings “E strano / Sempre Libera” in which Violetta, tempted by the love of a handsome man (what a strange feeling) responds by refusing to give up her freedom:

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This is an audio clip from the current Met production of Act II, the scene between Violetta and the Elder Germont, one of the most touching moments in the entire opera if not in Verdi’s complete output. At first derisive of Violetta, he comes to realize she is, after all, a woman in love and that her love is genuine and that her willing to leave Alfredo will be a great sacrifice to her. She begins this excerpt by singing, "Say good-bye to youth." Diana Damrau is Violetta and Placido Domingo sings the baritone role of Giorgio Germont.

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In addition to writing great tunes like “Libiamo,” Verdi had a knack for duets between fathers and daughters – Rigoletto and Gilda, for one; Amonasro and Aïda, for another – and even though Violetta is not Giorgio’s daughter, the empathy is still much the same. Verdi, who loved Shakespeare and would famously set Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff during his long career, always wanted to write an opera based on King Lear but the “scene on the heath,” he said, terrified him. Too bad – imagine the possibility of three father-daughter duets in that one…

Dick Strawser

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