10/01/2012 § 2 Comments
New Year’s treat: a trip to the ROH’s Traviata on the 2nd January.This was the first opera I ever saw live (a very sweet friend took me for my eighteenth birthday) and seeing it again was wonderful. It contains what’s surely a strong contender for my favourite scene in all of opera: the scene where Alfredo’s father visits Violetta and asks her to renounce his son, and she pleads with him to let her have just a few months more as she is dying of consumption in any case.
It’s this scene that lifts the opera above melodrama. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Les parapluies de Cherbourg, about how the poignancy of that film stems from the fact that no character in it is acting in bad faith. In La Traviata it’s similar: Germont (Alfredo’s father) may enter the scene as the epitome of bourgeois morality, top hat, beard, cane and all, but although he represents a religious morality (count how many times in that scene he refers to God, heaven, blessings or angels) he’s not a cruel or hypocritical man. He doesn’t believe Violetta when she tells him she is dying, but he recognises the enormity of the sacrifice she is making and her sadness at agreeing to part from Alfredo. What obliges him to demand the sacrifice from her nonetheless is his belief that because Violetta and Alfredo aren’t married, their relationship has no future. What makes Violetta accede to his request is her sympathy for Alfredo’s sister, who is ‘si bella e pura’ (so beautiful and so pure) and her feelings of shame at not being similarly pure; it’s heartbreaking, but so human.
The music is the perfect expression of the struggle between them: Germont’s measured phrases contrasting with Violetta’s anguish until both of them lift their voices together. You can watch the whole scene here:
What Verdi is saying about social morality is still brilliant and important: that it’s not force (violence or law) which constrains people to conform to social pressure, but the way they internalise those pressures. Your own feelings of shame about your way of life are more repressive than any external preaching could possibly be. It’s this humanity that makes Verdi’s operas so gripping. The story about the courtesan who falls in love and then loses her lover could be superficial and utterly melodramatic, but in Verdi’s hands it’s full of subtle and complex emotions.