Verdi's La Traviata: Opera's Original 'Pretty Woman'
Diana Damrau: Remember who you are, povera donna, a poor woman, sola, alone, abandonata, completely pushed away by everybody.
Rhiannon Giddens: Hey, I'm Rhiannon Giddens, from WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code.
Cori Ellison: In so many of his operas, Verdi was all about difficult choices, and usually it's between love and honor. Violetta is choosing between love and freedom.
Rhiannon: In each episode of Aria Code, singers and other experts decode one aria, and then we get to hear it all the way through with fresh ears. Today it's “Ah, fors'è lui” and “Sempre Libera” from one of Giuseppe Verdi's most famous operas, La Traviata.
Brooke Magnanti: Sex workers are everywhere. Anywhere that you could imagine yourself being, that's where we are, especially the opera house.
Rhiannon: Before we get started, there's a couple of super important things you need to know about me. First of all, I'm a Pisces, I'm also a folk singer, banjo player, and a fiddler. My main job on this planet is to excavate the hidden corners of American music. I co-founded a band called The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Yes, we're a Black string band, we played banjos, we won a Grammy, it was cool. The MacArthur Foundation called me one day to say that I was a genius, but none of this is why I'm here with you right now. Once upon a time in a faraway land called Oberlin, I trained to be an opera singer.
I wore the corsets, I sang the high-key sharps, and I completely fell in love with it, even though I left it to go play banjo. It just never went away, it just stayed with me, this music, this art form. I've branched out in different directions, but something always keeps me coming back, so the question is, why? Why does it lodge into your heart, into your very soul, and it just won't leave? That's the question this podcast is going to answer. For 10 episodes, we'll listen to some of the greatest singers from the Metropolitan Opera, talk about and sing some of the greatest areas ever written.
Not just singers, we'll hear from lots of other folks too. People who can take you deep inside a song and bring out some of the amazing details you might otherwise miss. In this first episode, let's start with one of my favorites because I actually used to sing it. Well, I tried to sing it. As you'll hear, it's a really hard aria. It's from Verdi's La Traviata, and it's more than an aria really, it's a full-on scene. Let me paint you a picture. We're in Paris, it's the 1800s, and Violetta is the Traviata, a fallen woman. She's a high-class escort, basically, and she's got it pretty good, except for the whole dying of tuberculosis thing.
There's this guy, Alfredo, he's been sweet on Violetta for a year and finally confesses his love. She tells him he is crazy, it's never going to happen, but then he leaves and Violetta, who's never been in love before, can't get his voice out of her head, so now she's got a choice to make and it's a big one. Freedom, or love. She's completely torn, and she's having all of the feels. Because it's opera, those feelings are set to song, and this one is pretty epic. To help reveal some of the magic, I've assembled a crack team of brilliant women.
Rhiannon: Soprano Diana Damrau.
Diana: When I was 12 years old, I saw La Traviata, and it opened up my mind, my horizon, my future, my life.
Rhiannon: She's singing the role of Violetta at the Met. Dramaturg, Cori Ellison.
Cori: Glad to be here.
Rhiannon: She's sort of my go-to opera guru.
Cori: Always happy to talk about Traviata.
Rhiannon: Brooke Magnanti.
Brooke: I am such a fan of this aria.
Rhiannon: You could say her resume is eclectic. She's got a PhD in forensic pathology, and she used to be a call girl.
Brooke: Woo, [laughs] I'm excited.
Rhiannon: All right, Brooke, that's what I'm talking about. They're going to show us what's really at stake for Violetta musically, and dramatically, as she makes the biggest decision of her life. Now, let's decode the Act I finale from Verdi's La Traviata.
Cori: Who is Violetta? On the one polarity, she's every woman.
Brooke: Violetta absolutely is every woman. She has a moral core, and she goes on a real journey.
Cori: On the other hand, she's also based on an actual human being who lived in the 19th century.
Diana: Marie Duplessis, a real courtesan, who lived in Paris.
Cori: She had huge success and rose to absolutely the top ranks of Parisian society.
Diana: She must have had an aura where everybody turned around and was captivated by this woman.
Cori: She ended up, of course, becoming very ill with tuberculosis, which, at the time, was a death sentence.
Brooke: She died adored but impoverished, all of her things had to be auctioned off. That is something that is a seed of fear for a lot of sex workers, "When this is over, what do I really have?" I have what appears to be freedom now, but will I always have it?
Diana: Courtesans were a kind of status symbols of the man in that time. Instead of a Porsche, "This is my house, this my swimming pool, this is my sailing boat. This is my courtesan." [laughs]
Brooke: I'd like to think that if we knew Violetta today, she would be working the way that I worked. What I offered was a thing in the business that we call girlfriend experience, so meeting with me was not like being with a long-term companion so much as it was like going out on a date with somebody who was very interested in you, and where there was guaranteed sex.
Cori: Act I of Traviata takes place at Violetta's home, and she's giving this grand party. Everybody is all dressed and in a very festive mood, and she's introduced to this young man from the country, Alfredo Germont. He claims that he's been in love with her from afar for a year, and she laughs it off. "Oh, I'm not the marrying kind, you're barking up the wrong tree," but obviously, it's affecting her. She likes him, she's very interested.
Diana: This is really a little shock for her. She cannot collect her thoughts, and she feels things she has not felt before. She feels hope that maybe she can experience love for the first time in her life.
Brooke: I can definitely relate to being completely unaware that love is even a possibility until it's literally right there in front of you, confronting you. I never had particularly strong feelings for any of my clients, but after I retired, and I was just dating out in the civilian world, I went on a series of very disappointing dates. I'd resigned myself to, "Okay, I'm just going to have hookups. I'm not going to get attached to anyone, and I'm not going to make myself emotionally available." The man that I later end up marrying and is still my husband, when he admitted to me that he was having feelings, it was like the first time for me that it had ever occurred to me, "Oh, or maybe I have feelings for this person as well." You weren't looking for it, you weren't thinking about it, and then all of a sudden there it is like some kind of gift.
Diana: She also knows that if a courtesan experiences love, she will have to pay for it. She's torn to both sides, "Yes, it will work, I can love, and I can change my life," and on the other hand, actually not, "I'm caught, I'm in the cage. I cannot escape the town, the people, the society, and death also." She's sick, she'll probably not recover. She doesn't know how much time will be left, and that's how the aria starts. It comes out of nothing, the people are gone, and the house is empty, and then we go like a big zoom into Violetta's heart, hard and she says, "È strano, è strano.”
“It's strange, really strange." “In core Scolpiti ho quegli accenti.” “It's written into my heart now the words," Alfredo, this young man, said. Then you hear, pa, pa, pa, pam, pa, pa, pa, pam. You can almost hear her heartbeat. She says, "Could it be something bad for me to experience serious love?" The music goes up, and you have long notes, and you hear softness in her voice, as well as that she's deeply, how do you say it, struck by what just happened, the scene with Alfredo. I think this was just a shock to get this wave of love of this young man. She ends the recitativo with actually almost the question, "Can I not take it?" We know the answer, she wants it.
Brooke: Love is important no matter who you are. That conflict between being paid to give people an experience of love versus the love that you want for yourself, it's something that a lot of sex workers, even now, wrestle with because there are very deep assumptions that somebody who has sold sex cannot feel love. That she has somehow shut off her heart from the rest of the world and can't know what it truly means to love. Something that, of course, is proven untrue. She sacrifices absolutely everything for love.
Diana: Then we go into the andantino of the aria, it's, pa, pa, pa, pa. These triplets which go up in quarts [sic], it's like she becomes a little girl. She really expresses her deepest wish, "Ah, fors'è lui che l'anima, solinga ne' tumulti." That means, "Oh, maybe it's him. It's him my soul was longing for. He's the dream prince." The prince charming, you would say in English. You hear this in every little melody, and every little note Verdi has written for it. She's whispering her hopes and her dreams.
Cori: It's such an amazing aria because she says, "Is he the one that I've been dreaming about?” The first part of the aria is an F minor. It's this bittersweet kind of thing, warm and hopeful but hesitant. Then all of a sudden, it blooms into F major, where what she is doing then is literally quoting his music that he sang to her earlier in Act I in their duet, Un dì, felice.
Diana: "Ah, quell'amor, quell'amor ch'è palpito dell'universo, dell'universo intero."
Cori: Love is the heartbeat of the whole universe.
Diana: Then she repeats it word by word with the right rhythm, with the right notes. It's absolutely identical. That means it's really inside her heart. You feel her excitement, you feel the longing. Verdi really shows us, it's love, but for the courtesan, there will be a bitter end, and she knows it. There is another little recitativo accompagnato, we can say, that means accompagnato is that the voice is not really free. It has a rhythm which goes through, and the orchestra plays much more. It's the moment when she says, "Follie, follie.” This is complete craziness.
This is wrong. This is stupid. It's delirium. You're fantasizing. It can never happen. Then comes the moment when the scene is steadily repeated over one, two, three, four, five, almost six bars. I think it's like she would hammer it into her mind, into her consciousness. "Remember who you are, povera donna, a poor woman, sola, alone, abandonata, completely pushed away by everybody." Nobody can be as alone as she is. After continuing one note forever, [heavy sigh] then she releases. She's opening a bottle of champagne, "I have to enjoy life, I have to live in voluta."
That means, not sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but that means, "Yes, let's go for it." You can hear it in the music. The vocal line goes up and then goes down in circles. It's full of life and full of power. Power.
Brooke: Power in our society is money and freedom. Sex work is literally empowering. It puts money in your pocket, it gives you free time, it gives you peace of mind of not having to worry about how I'm going to pay the rent next month, or "How am I going to have enough time to do the things that I need to do?" I loved being a sex worker. It sounds terrible and glib, and all the bad things to say that. Everybody has their bad days at work. I had my bad days at work. I've had far worse days as a writer. It was good to me.
Diana: Now is the moment the huge orchestra starts playing the Allegro Brillante, pa, pa, pa, pa, ram, pa, ram, pa, ram pa, the “Sempre libera.” In this moment, it is not happiness. It's not joy, it's almost frenetic. It's really, she's desperate. You can hear it in the music, and she always goes up and higher and higher. It's, I think, almost like a little, in that scene, she's so desperate. She doesn't know what to do.
Cori: She knows that she's a ticking time bomb. She knows that she only has a certain amount of time left, and she wants to live it to the fullest. The sentiment that she expresses in “Sempre libera,” she says, "Sempre libera degg'io, folleggiare di gioia in gioia." That, "I want to flick from joy to joy." It's like she wants to live life at high speed. She wants to take in all of the joys of a full long life in the short time that she has.
Diana: It goes up and down fast, and that's what coloratura is. It has to be sung in a very virtuosic way. That means all the notes should be there and should be hearable. What is more important is the meaning behind, and there's the coloring behind, why? Why is she singing this in this tempo, in this movement?
Cori: She has to go through this incredible gamut of emotions, which Verdi maps out quite clearly, but that takes her from long lyrical lines to the most dizzying coloratura. It has this relentless quality because he's trying to just whip herself into this lather of pleasure and enjoyment and dispel these thoughts of love.
Diana: Then there is the famous last note, the famous high note at the end, which is actually not written by Verdi. It became tradition, and I think, yes, if the soprano has this note, if she feels good that night. and she sings it fine, wonderful.
Cori: Act I ends with her having gone through this real deep reflection about love, and could this be it, to, at the end of the Act she just asserts, "No." Her independence, "I'm just going to be free and enjoy myself." By the beginning of Act II, we see how well that vow has worked because we find that she's been living in the country with this Alfredo who has just swept her off her feet.
Brooke: I think I would have gone the other way from Violetta. In that very moment, me, a 27-year-old woman trying to survive in London, who, in her heart, did not believe in love, I think I would have chosen that feeling of freedom, I'm afraid. Life has gone in other directions for me, and it's shown me that would have been the wrong choice.
Cori: Who hasn't experienced something like that? Who hasn't had to mull over some kind of a really difficult decision between their heart and their head? I think everybody can relate to this.
Diana: For me, it was also very difficult. I searched for a long time, and I kissed a lot of frogs. [laughs] It's also a question of luck, and also, it's timing. I think when you really feel it deep inside, there's no question. You will go for it. For me, there was no question at all.
Rhiannon: Hey, this is Rhiannon. That was Soprano, Diana Damrau, dramaturg, Cori Ellison, and writer and former call girl, Brooke Magnanti decoding the Act I finale of La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Now, let's hear Diana sing it uninterrupted with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
[Act I finale of La Traviata performed by soprano Diana Damrau with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra]
Rhiannon: That was soprano Diana Damrau, singing the Act I finale from Verdi's La Traviata. Aria Code is about to aria close out this episode. See what I did there? Our producer is Merrin Lazyan. Brendan Francis Newnam, I love that name, is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our executive producer. Sound designed by Matt Boynton and Original Music by Hannis Brown. Our team also includes Ania Grzesik, Khrista Rypl, and Ricardo Quinones. This show is a co-production of WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera. Special thanks to Diana Damrau, Cori Ellison, and Brooke Magnanti for their insights into the Act I finale from Verdi's La Traviata. Join me next episode when a biological anthropologist puts a lovesick tenor into a brain scanner.
Female Speaker: If I were to put Rodolfo into my brain scanner, directly after he's fallen in love with Mimi, I would have found activity in a tiny little factory near the base of the brain, called the ventral tegmental area. It's a brain region that actually makes dopamine, giving you that feeling of elation, focus, motivation, and craving that you could see so clearly in him and in her.
Rhiannon: I'm Rhiannon Giddens and we'll see you next time. Mille Grazie.
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