Fun or Fright?
A Close Look at the Interpretation of Choral Moments in La Traviata
Texts and translations for the following tracks can be found here.
La Traviata is the story of an intimate, tragic love affair, but it’s also an opera about a society caught in a frantic whirl of amusements. Act I opens at the party where the relationship begins. Emphasizing her isolation, Violetta wears a red dress that stands in sharp contrast to the choristers, all of whom (men and women) wear black-and-white male garb.
Act II, Scene 2, like a dark funhouse mirror, presents another party, fractured by Violetta’s forced rejection of Alfredo. Taken at face value, the choral numbers in these two scenes might be seen as lighthearted distractions. But another view is possible—one that offers insight into the interplay between an opera’s score and libretto and a director’s artistic vision in bringing it to the stage. Text and translations can be found here.
Early in the Act I party, Alfredo is cajoled into leading her guests in a “brindisi,” or drinking song. CD 2, Track 9 introduces his performance with a characteristic instrumental introduction that students may have heard before, though they may not know its text: “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”—“Let’s raise our happy glasses!”
This brindisi takes the form of a waltz—a dance in which couples swirl round and round in circles. Willy Decker, director of the Met’s production of La Traviata, took inspiration from this musical geometry: “The basic form of the waltz is a circle,” he explains, “and as a musical theme it runs through the piece, almost like an obsession.” Circular forms show up throughout the production, in set design, in movement, in a gigantic clock that dominates the stage, and of course in Verdi’s music.
In Track 10, after a brief pause, Verdi begins the waltz circle again as Alfredo begins to sing about flowers, love, and intoxication.
The chorus joins in Track 11.
In Track 12, Violetta takes her turn. She has only just met Alfredo and likely has no feelings for him yet. Still, her verse expresses two wishes that will prove incompatible as the circle of La Traviata revolves: a life of pleasure and a life together, “tra voi,” “with you”—with Alfredo.
The chorus takes another spin in Track 13, then Violetta and Alfredo playfully trade lines before everyone joins in the ringing conclusion.
The entire brindisi can be heard on Track 14.
The drinking song is balanced in Act II, Scene 2, with another party, in which some of the guests arrived masked. This scene involves two choral pieces: women masquerading as gypsies and men playing bullfighters from Spain.
Alfredo does not sing a word during these pieces. In fact, the libretto does not require his presence until after they’re completed. But Willy Decker has imagined them through his eyes—the eyes of an unexpected guest, alienated by the culture of drink, flirtation, and gambling that, he believes, has reclaimed his beloved Violetta. This interpretation takes advantage of aspects of Verdi’s music that might be overlooked if these choruses were treated as nothing but playful interludes.
The “gypsy” women sing first, announcing themselves in march rhythm. With the proper frame of mind, this propulsive beat can sound martial, even threatening(Track 15). In that spirit, when the onlookers punctuate, “Olé!”, it’s not hard to imagine them as a hypnotized mob.
The women carry on, accompanied by stamping feet and banging tambourines (Track 16). For brief passages, they turn delicate and cheerful. But when asserting their power to read the future they revert to that same steely march.
The merriment—and the threat—expand when the male masqueraders take the floor, introducing themselves as matadors: killers, in Spanish. They too sing a march, even faster paced, making reference to the “fatted ox” traditionally slaughtered at Carnival. The mob, swept along, calls out encouragement—not with a mere “Olé” this time, but by joining the song itself (Track 17).
The bullfighters have offered to tell a story encompassing love and death: For the heart of a maiden, a matador slays five bulls at once. Tellingly, they change rhythms. The waltz rhythm returns, in a fast tempo, whipping around to the accents of tambourines, stomping feet, castanets, even the crack of a whip (Track 18). The melody spins crazily.
The crowd calls for more and the bullfighters oblige (Track 19), leading to a two-part chorus in which the masked matadors and the rest of the throng trade lines.
A choral crescendo brings the circle to a close (Track 20), with bullfighters, gypsies, and all shedding their personas to move on to a different amusement: gambling.
It’s easy to imagine Alfredo, mortified, out of step with the crowd’s fervor, watching these displays unfold like nightmares. By interpreting the choruses from this point of view, the Met’s production uncovers an intriguingly dark strain in two set pieces that might otherwise seem blithe or even random. The party choruses in this Live in HD production thus offer a case study in opera’s unique ability of creating drama out of words, song, and staging.
Both choruses can be heard without interruption on Track 21.