Verdi’s “La Traviata” is one of the most iconic in music history.
Why? It’s heroine Violetta is one of the most powerful and admirable characters in the art form. With her Verdi questioned the social boundaries of the time, taking a contemporary subject and placing it in the opera house during a time when opera was only intended to look backward. Looking in the mirror was not the function of said entertainment.
The work, which premiered on March 6, 1853, was an abject failure as a result. But it recovered quickly and is now a fixture everywhere. As any soprano what her dream role is (and we have), and Violetta will undeniably be at the top of her list. If it isn’t, then it’s likely she’s already sung the role.
Why? Because Violetta is a complex being who has to fight off a past that is questionable only because society says it is. She isn’t a monster by any means and her behavior throughout the opera bears this out. Society is the true monster as it uses her for its enjoyment while locking her out of aspirations for higher social standing and growth.
Moreover, Violetta is a woman who understands her limits but doesn’t forbid herself from dreaming and hoping for more than the empty life she is forced to inhabit.
And that is at the core of arguably the opera’s finest and easily most famous musical passage – the famous scena.
The Double Arias
Is there a more iconic set of double arias in any opera than Violetta’s famous scene at the end of the first act? The opera actually includes two other sets of double arias for the other two leads Alfredo and Germont, but they rarely register after the magnitude of Violetta’s. Here Verdi studies the character with tremendous profundity.
To this point, we have seen Violetta as a wild coquette who is somewhat passive aggressive with Alfredo, who expresses his love for her. After a cacophonous chorus, Violetta kicks off her passage with the quiet “E strano.” Repeats and then starts questioning this new feeling she has. In a brilliant move, Verdi has her appropriate the melody that Alfredo used to declare his affection at the core of her aria. He connects the two with this simple and effective gesture. To make the transformation even clearer, Verdi has Violetta’s initial statements in the aria, “Ah fors’è lui,” in F minor to explore the ambiguity and insecurity she feels. But when she gives reign to Alfredo’s melody, she shifts in F major and stays there.
But then she rejects the notions with repetitions of the word “Follie,” staying in F major. Eventually, the coloratura runs at the end of this transitory recitative slowly get her to the key of A flat major for her ultimate rejection of love in “Sempre libera.” A flat is the relative major key of F minor, which emphasizes the relationship between the start of the first aria and this second aria. While it emphasizes Violetta’s unwillingness to give in to her love, it does highlight a sense of ambiguity in her truthfulness in “Sempre Libera.” Afterall, this initial hesitance in “Ah fors’è lui” gave way for a passionate rendition of a certain melody that just happens to show up in this very key of A flat halfway through the second aria. Violetta suddenly stops for a moment to listen to Alfredo’s melody return with greater force. Is he there or is this in her mind? This is up to the stage director, but the intent is clear – Violetta can’t shake off this feeling; it’s the third time that it has appeared in under 30 minutes. It now represents her longing for love and as noted above, the transformation is complete. First, it belonged to Alfredo. Then she took it over. Now it belongs to both, only now fully personified as Alfredo.
As the aria draws to a close, the two voices play off one another, Verdi creating this sense of Violetta attempting to fight off the intense longing that that melody produces in her. It becomes a battle of wills – not Alfredo vs. Violetta, but Violetta’s two competing worlds – the current one and her dream world. In the former, she knows what to expect and has all the power. In the latter, she can give in to her deepest desire but knows nothing of the cost it will demand of her. She will undeniably learn the cost throughout the rest of the opera.
We know what she picks by the start of the next act, but the ending of this aria leaves us with tremendous ambiguity and tension because Violetta doesn’t make a clear choice and it embodies every decision she is forced to make from here on out. There is no happy or simple decision for Violetta for the rest of the opera; she is forced into one difficult decision after another, none of which she wants to make. This decision, which she most desperately makes for her sake, is the one that ultimately takes everything away from her.
That is brilliant storytelling.
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