There are a handful of operas that define the genre; their time period irrelevant and their themes go to the very heart of the human condition.
We live with these creations daily without our knowing it and they are the very musical air we breath. They exist in the opera house, on the the concert stage (without scenery), in the recital hall (as excerpts, arranged for piano), in the elevator, on the radio, in the lightest cartoons and the darkest dramas - and yes, in the shower.
The aged remember them nostalgically in good, best and better performances, and the casual listener usually remarks after hearing the tiniest fragment from the work (ironically): "I don't really like opera, but..."
A short list of such operas might read: "Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)," "Die Walkure," "Norma," "Der Rosenkavalier," "Eugene Onegin," "Carmen," "Aida," "Turandot"... and the only opera you definitely can't leave off the list is Verdi's "La Traviata."
The theme beyond that of the nineteenth-century "fallen woman" - with or without a heart of gold - is more generally the outsider and how love and the outsider collide with society. We see refracted in the drama that follows the most laughable of human foibles and our highest aspirations.
Normally society will not yield and love will not be denied. In such cases, mayhem, laughter, pathos and sometimes real musical transcendence follow. Men risk head and heart for Turandot; the youths of the Magic Flute move through the threat of death to their goal of light, led by love; Brunnhilde and Siegfried will risk the end of the world and the wrath of the gods; Octavian and the Marschallin race against time and social convention; and on it goes.
An opera of operas
Verdi sets his trial by fire and search for truth in the morally ambiguous world of a nineteenth-century Paris drawing room - there are more fallen women and intoxicated and feverish men than you can count.
In this seemingly frivolous and sometimes cruel world two completely unlikely people fall hopelessly in love, and the walls of polite society and economic necessity are raised powerfully against them.
Pleas, objections, doubts, deceit and lies all try to separate Violetta Valery from Alfred Germont. Finally the last card is played by a father (Giorgio Germont) in despair for both his son and daughter's future; the need for sacrifice from a woman that, however well intended, just doesn't deserve love.
In the process of longing, loss, rediscovery and final triumph, some of Verdi's greatest and most popular music flows in an unstoppable torrent. From the first notes of the vibrant overture through the Brindisi, then E strano, Sempre Libera, Lunge da lei per me and most famously a father's pleading:
"Piangi, piangi o misera. Sumpremo, Il veggio
E il sacrifizio - che ora ti chieggo..."
Weep, weep, poor girl, I see now
That the sacrificial ask could not be greater...
Be brave, your noble heart will conquer all
Truer words than the elder Germont realizes. Violetta is faithful to his happiness through rejection, humiliation and near death. Finally she wins them all over, but it is too late.
The throbbing, pathetic, halting third act prelude - one of the towering achievements of all music - says it all before the characters utter a word of the doomed ending where she coughs herself to death like a bird locked in a cage, unable to breath.
Her opponents realize that they have all been wrong, and in the end only a woman. Her nobility of sacrifice casts them all into the shade.
Verdi should know this scenario well, for he lived with his second wife for years before they finally married to a scandalized Italian society - the man knew of what he spoke.
Themes that anyone can grasp
"La Traviata" is every lost opportunity, every test to what we are and our willingness to demand truth over all appearance. Who is up to the challenge? To go this far to win happiness?
These are the great questions of life framed in a powerful drama, all set to unforgettable music.
In the film "Pretty Woman," Richard Gere's wealthy playboy and the street-wise Julia Roberts fly by private plane to see "La Traviata." She says, "I've never been to the opera," to which he explains, "It doesn't matter, you'll understand this" - and you will too.
Tune in for an epic!
Soprano Diana Damrau features as Verdi’s eternal heroine Violetta and Plácido Domingo is Germont, Violetta’s tormentor. Tenor Saimir Pirgu sings Alfredo, her naïve lover and Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts.
Tune in this Saturday at noon for the Metropolitan Opera's presentation of Verdi's "La Traviata," here on KPAC and KTXI.
- More online at: www.metoperafamily.org