• Opera In Depth - La Traviata - 5. Musical Analysis

    5. Musical Analysis

    La Traviata – Musical structure

    With Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata, Verdi began to break the mold of formula and predictability by merging recitative, aria, and ensemble. He wanted clear dramatic continuity.
    During this phase, his works were characterized by:
    — Reliance on human emotions and psychological insights for the essential story line
    — Increasing deemphasis on Belcanto divisions in favor of continuous music
    — Carefully composed and highly integrated musical entities
    — The orchestra plays a much more important role than in a typical Belcanto opera
    — Use of good libretti, often based on genuine Romantic literature
    — He began to use the new Parlante technique by which recitative-like vocal parts are accompanied by a tuneful orchestration

    Lyricism is the key to Verdi’s art. His melodies never lost direct and popular touch, even in this phase.

    This opera is Verdi’s only second attempt at setting to music a contemporary subject (Stiffelio was the first one) as opposed to the grand public events and gestures, and historical figures. Verdi was accepting something more intimate (we can see a bit of this in Luisa Miller as well). This unheroic, burgeois world required a new style, which can be heard in the fact that the score for La Traviata is more flexible and the vocal writing is more delicate than in his earlier operas.

    What is extraordinary about the musical structure in La Traviata is how well Verdi uses various figures in the instrumentation and vocal writing to signal the wildly shifting moods inside the characters. I will proceed by spelling out these various musical figures, and will highlight in bold font all the references to these devices.


    — The prelude begins with a somber theme which represents the tragedy of Violetta’s illness and early death. It is a sad and elegant encapsulation of the heroine herself. The melody is first stated by violins and cellos, then repeated by the cellos with a violin obbligato (countermelody) above it.
    The music is melancholic, longing, showing her empty life and hopelessness. It makes attempts at happiness, when she tries to counteract her sadness by engaging in easy partying and drinking and the quest for pleasure. The violin obbligato in the last third of the piece gives away this dichotomy between melancholy and gayness, but the cello background doesn’t let us forget that she may seem superficially joyful, but underneath it she is sick and sad.
    The Leitmotifs in the Prelude proceed in reverse order – Verdi takes us musically from what we’ll hear later in her deathbed to our first encounter with her. It is interesting to notice that while in his opera Verdi goes from the partying lifestyle to her death, in Alexandre Dumas, Fils source material La Dame aux Camelias, the novel, the story line goes in retrospect from her death to the happier times. In Verdi’s prelude, he recovers the sequence found in his source material (although the play has the same timeline of the opera).

    Act I – Scene 1

    — It opens with a lively theme, a true party music. There is a chorus that speaks as one character throughout the opera, responding as one to the progressing action.
    — Violetta hosts friends at home, and in spite of being ill, throws a party
    — Violetta’s second line already gives away her strategy: Al piacere m’affido, ed io soglio con tal farmaco I mali sopir. (I give myself to pleasure, since pleasure is the best medicine for my ills).


    — This philosophy is celebrated by everybody in the famous drinking song Brindisi: Libiamo, ne’ lieti calice, che la bellezza infiora, e la fuggevol ora, s’inebrii a voluttà (Let’s drink from the joyful glass, resplendent with beauty, drink to the spirit of pleasure, which enchants the fleeting moment).
    — Violetta says that “everything in life is madness (follia, follia!) except for pleasure. Let us be joyful, for love is a fleeting and short-lived joy.”
    — In this song, in-between the joyful refrain, Violetta and Alfredo dialogue, showing opposite views (which Verdi highlights by not letting them sing in unison): she says “life is only pleasure;” he, who is in love with her, replies that it is so “only for those who don’t know love.” Violetta underlines her loveless life, saying “speak not of love to one who knows not what it is.” He adds, “such is my destiny.” (La vita è nel tripudio… quando non s’ami ancora… nol dite a chi l’ignora… è il mio destin così)

    Alfredo’s declaration of love

    — Skipping ahead, soon enough we get to Un dì felice, eterea, the moment when Alfredo declares his love at first sight for Violetta, telling her about the day when he saw her passing by for the first time. In this aria, his halting, self-conscious phrases expand after 40 seconds into a lush melody that comes to represent their love and which reappears through the opera. He says that his love is mysterious and noble (misterioso, altero the love Leitmotif) while she replies that she offers only friendship, she cannot love, nor can she accept so heroic a love from him.

    The spinning Parisian lifestyle

    — The party ends and everybody leaves, still singing. The music here is fast and halting, relentlessly repeating short lines like a whirlpool, showing the exhausting pleasure-seekers’ lifestyle.

    Violetta’s dilemma

    — Alone, she muses on Alfredo’s love. This begins a scene (remember, Verdi made of the scene the unit in his operas, rather than isolated arias) lasting 12 and a half minutes, a real tour de force for the solo soprano on stage, spanning four arias.
    — Violetta is lost in contemplation, her heart perhaps touched for the first time. In the first aria (È strano) she wonders if she could have a real love. “His words are burned upon my heart. Would a real love be a tragedy for me?” Then she starts a masterfully constructed aria (Ah, fors’ è lui – perhaps he’s the one) with halting phrases in a minor key – which signals the fact that the moment is truly internal, of interior reflection, different from the major key arias that she was extrovertly singing up to this point (as in all of classical music, upbeat arias are in major keys, and introspective ones in minor keys). At the end of the aria, her mood changes from introspection and she bursts into what is musically a celebration of dawning love at the same time as the words she sings deny any such possibility. This is a powerful scene and we can feel through the musical development Violetta’s burgeoning love.

    Then, a sudden change of heart

    — The third aria of this set has Violetta suddenly shaking away her doubts – Follie! Follie! Delirio vano è questo – Folly! All is folly! This is mad delirium! – she says she is alone, abandoned in this crowded desert known as Paris, and should rather revel and die in the whirlpool of enjoyment – “ne’vortici perir, gioir, gioir.” the word used, gioir, has a connotation of sexual pleasure, especially given the way the word is underlined by a very suggestive coloratura.

    She rebels against the ties of love, and screams “Forever free!”

    — In this most famous and difficult aria Sempre libera, Verdi adopted the style of a cabaletta, a word derived from the Italian for grasshoper, since the music jumps along, again symbolizing how Violetta wants to extract herself at all costs from being stopped in her compensatory quest for pleasure. In an interesting dramatic effect, Alfredo’s voice is heard from the outside, declaring again his love for her – she is shaken, becomes melancholic again and says “Oh, amore” – but she will not be swayed. She rapidly insists again on the power of enjoyment in a rapid succession of coloraturas that almost suggest a masturbatory orgasm. Her declaration of independence brings the act to a close with a stunning penultimate E-flat above a high C.

    Act 2

    — The introduction to the second act has vigorous strings, describing the joy of the young lovers in their new life together three months later, in their house in the countryside.
    — The aria De’ miei bollenti spiriti has energetic pizzicato (plucked) strings showing how Alfredo pours out his youthful, ardent euphoria and impetuosity. The musical and dramatic climax of this aria comes in its last two lines. In a soaring vocal cadenza, the tenor can portray Alfredo’s rapture at forgetting the world to live “in heaven” with his love (io vivo quasi in ciel)
    — A couple of arias later, when Alfredo’s father enters the scene, there is an ominous theme in the low strings. Thus begins the long confrontation between Germont and Violetta, and the music will shift at several points as the two negotiate their various claims

    The long scene between Germont and Violetta – the pivotal moment of the opera

    — In Verdi’s day, duets were often lengthy musical structures that allowed for lengthy and profound dramatic interaction between characters. Generally constructed of four contrasting movements separated by transition passages, these duets begin with a scena, a short section in which characters initiate a conversation. The scena then continues into the following:
    Tempo d’attacco - a fast movement performed by one or both singers
    Cantabile - a slower, more lyrical section than the first
    Tempo di mezzo - a short, quick transition section
    Cabaletta - a rapid, energetic conclusion

    The changing mood in the scene comes from the fact that Germont starts by being harsh, but he softens his tone when it becomes apparent that she is not the gold-digger he had assumed he would find. Here is how Verdi does it:

    — In this first movement, Germont and Violetta have been singing “at” each other, with no real harmony of voices or thoughts. However, after the transition into the second movement, the cantabile, “Ditte alla giovine - si’ bella e pura,” Verdi begins to bring them slowly together. When Germont understands the sacrifice Violetta agrees to make for his daughter (and the joy she feels at making it), the composer recognizes this moment by allowing them to share a cadenza. The third movement, Tra breve ei vi fia reso, brings them even closer as Violetta asks Germont to embrace her as if she were his daughter.
    — The cabaletta is all that remains. Note that Germont and Violetta no longer spar with different music; Verdi gives them the same melody and allows them to harmonize for they have reached an accord - all this through one of the most psychologically rich portrayals Verdi ever composed.
    — Germont begins lyrically as he tries to coax Violetta into pitying the difficult position of his lovely and innocent daughter – Pura sicomme un angelo
    — Violetta’s phrases become breathy as she begins to realize the exorbitant price of Germont’s request – Ah no, giammai, no, no
    The music becomes sinister and manipulative as Germont changes his strategy, focusing on the fickle nature of men and playing on Violetta’s fear of aging – Un dì, quando le veneri
    — Violetta’s response is in hushed phrases in the haunting key of E flat, suggesting someone who is physically stunned. Germont’s interjections are sympathetic yet still stern and not consoling – Ditte alla giovine sì bella e pura
    A very quiet tone pervades as Violetta and Germont agree that she must tell Alfredo that she doesn’t love him. The tension and emotion build up in the orchestra rather than in the vocal lines. Imponete
    Emotions finally burst forth as Germont tries to encourage Violetta. The music is reminiscent of people preparing for war. They exchange sympathetic farewells. Morrò! La mia memoria non fia ch’ei
    — The listener is compelled to condemn Germont for his heartless destruction of a vulnerable woman’s life, while at the same time getting some understanding of what compelled him to act like this. The ability to portray musically these conflicting emotions is a striking example of the power and beauty of Verdi’s music.

    Second act, continued

    — Violetta says little while writing to Alfredo, and a plaintiff clarinet gives voice to her sighs – Dammi tu forza, o cielo!
    — Alfredo enters, and over an agitated orchestration, he questions Violetta about the letter. At the piece’s climax, we hear the expansive theme we heard in the prelude over tremolo strings. Here, the theme is raw emotion and a great demand on the lyric soprano, but is crucial for the convincing expression of her love. Che fai?
    — Next there is Di Provenza il mar il suol, one of the most outstanding baritone arias in the repertoire. The opening theme, played by woodwinds, has a folk-like quality which describes the rural setting of Alfredo’s childhood home.
    — The aria has the structure of music written a generation before Verdi, and therefore is appropriate to represent the point of view of the older generation.

    Structure of this superb aria

    — Germont has spent the first part of Act 2 convincing Violetta to abandon his son; successful at that endeavor, he appeals to him by calling up vivid memories of their home in Provence. Although the text is rich in imagery and certainly “paternal,” it is Verdi’s setting of it that makes this aria noteworthy. Verdi “lengthens” the lines by setting each as they are written but then repeating them again, this time placing the second phrase first. For example, the aria’s first line is sung as follows:
    Di Provence il mar, il suol—chi dal cor ti cancello?
    Chi dal cor ti cancello, di Provence il mar, il suol?
    This setting effectively makes the poetic lines sound longer. It also gives the aria a particularly “stable” or “square” sound—each line, composed of half phrases, perfectly balances the other. Dramatically, Germont is the father who attempts to re-establish a balance in his son’s life, persuading his child by repeating his arguments with the slightest of variations.

    Second act, scene 2

    — Let’s skip the cabaletta that ends Scene 1. In scene 2, we get to Flora’s house where Verdi treats us to the same type of party music we heard at the beginning of the opera.
    — Verdi then interrupts the action with a choral ballet with gypsies, conceived as an important relief to the dramatic tension. Spanish matadors and picadors enter. These two choruses talk first of infidelity, then of true love. In the end, all agree that, although this story of fidelity is nice, they prefer their frivolous lifestyle.
    Tension resumes later as the card game begins, and the vocal lines take on a static quality with the exception of Violetta’s asides, which soar out over the texture, expressing her distress. Alfredo, voi!
    — Violetta and Alfredo confront one another over a taut musical accompaniment which reflects his insanely jealous bravado. Invitato a qui seguirme
    — In Ogni suo aver tal femmina, Alfredo curses Violetta in a brief aria over a cabaletta-style figure. The guests respond wildly, their incredulity underlined by an unresolved closing chord.
    — Germont responds in Di sprezzo degno sé stesso rende in expansive fatherly phrases, while Alfredo, realizing what he has done, responds in halting phrases as he tries to excuse his actions.

    Second act, finale

    — This large ensemble Alfredo Alfredo di questo core, in which everyone expresses their various thoughts at once, brings the act to a stunning conclusion. Large ensembles are perfect for portraying the reaction of a community. Respecting convention of 19th century opera, this ensemble doesn’t advance the drama in real time, but allows us to dissect a climactic moment into its various components. Violetta begins in a distant voice, yet is always at the center of the vocal tableau, and builds to an emotional climax while audibly affecting those around her.
    — Every member of the demimonde turns on Alfredo. In communion with all of the main characters, the chorus condemns him for his shameful behavior. Virtually every voice in the cast merges to create one of the most thrilling and dramatic ensembles in opera.

    Prelude to third act

    — We hear the same sorrowful music we heard in the Prelude to Act I. This is followed by an extended lament which seems to express the alternating hope and despair of Violetta’s situation. The slow, sad prelude echoes that of the first act, but the difference here is the fact that there is nothing this time to contrast with the tragedy. The attempt to break free of the doom is no longer there, so, there is no uplifting violin pizzicato this time around.

    — Then, the orchestra is muted and Violetta’s lines are likewise quiet in the next passage, showing that she is barely alive. Annina? Commandate?
    — Next, Violetta takes a letter from her bosom and speaks the words over a solo violin echoing the love theme from Act I – this technique has since been abused in many movies, but remains striking in its original context here. Teneste la promessa

    — The next important aria, Addio del passato, is a masterpiece of construction. Introduced by a melancholic solo oboe, Violetta’s farewells are accompanied by halting figures in the orchestra that call to mind her shortness of breath. As she recalls Alfredo’s love her lines begin to soar, and as she prays for redemption the orchestra presses forward in the ascending harmonic progression. Having expended all her energies, her line descends, punctuated by isolated chords in the strings, and she ends on an unaccompanied high A.

    — After we hear revelers outside in marked contrast between Violetta’s former life and her near death, the excitement moves inside as Annina enters. The harmonies remain unstable – their direction uncertain – until we hear the news of Alfredo’s imminent return, and all resolves in an optimistic major key. Signora

    Parigi, o cara is a famous duet in which the lovers describe an idyllic future together. The music is perfectly symmetrical and marvelously intertwined between the two lovers. They are finally together in every sense, but it is too late for them.

    A word about duets

    — Librettists write duets to depict such scenes as a lovers’ tryst, a meeting between friends or foes, and, in comedies, a wily servant’s manipulation of a gullible master. Once composers have the duet’s text, they can use a variety of musical strategies to underscore the emotion or tension in these encounters. One character generally begins the duet by “speaking” to the other who responds either alone or by joining in. If the words are considered particularly important - for example, if two characters are expressing precisely the same thought - the composer might have them join to sing in unison or in harmony. Various other dramatic possibilities exist, though. The two might alternate solo sections with the second singer either :
    — - echoing precisely what the first has performed
    — - singing different words to the same melody, or
    — - performing entirely new music and text.
    This last strategy is generally employed if the characters are in conflict; if they cannot agree, the composer portrays that in their music – like in Alfredo and Violetta’s first duet of his declaration of love, when she only offers him friendship. Here, however, it’s different: Verdi wants to show their togetherness in love, therefore, it’s the two former strategies that are employed.

    Then we hear Violetta’s heart beat faster as she tries to take up her life again, but the low strings repeatedly interject short descending phrases which punctuate her failures. Ah, non più, a un tempio
    — Violetta realizes the seriousness of her condition, and her music takes on a martial tone, as if she is rebelling against fate. Ma se tornando non m’hai salvato
    — Germont’s return cheers her slightly but only briefly. Ah Violetta! Voi, signor!
    — Resigned to her fate, Violetta gives her medallion to Alfredo over a funeral march which becomes more insistent as Alfredo and his father pour out their despair. As Violetta slips away, the key becomes major, but it is still punctuated by the funereal figure – we hear both heaven and earth. Over shimmering strings, a solo violin once again announces the love theme. It grows in intensity as she rallies one last time, and at the peak of her ecstasy, she falls dead and the orchestra hurdles toward its final tragic D-Flat minor chord. Più a me t’appressa

    Two medical curiosities

    — Why does Violetta, weak and languishing on her death bed, suddenly rallies and lets forth a powerful high B-flat? It depicts “spes phthisica” — a momentary sensation just before death when the consumptive supposedly felt as though he or she were recovering. Medically, it’s the surge of adrenal hormones that often precedes death.
    — In 1853, Alfredo and Germont rush to Violetta’s side with no hesitation; in 1896, in Puccini’s La Bohème where the heroine also dies of consumption, Rodolfo expressed serious concerns to Marcello about the possibility of catching Mimì’s illness. Why this different reaction? In 1882, the tuberculosis bacillus was discovered!


    Here are the main sources that I have used:

    www.operamerica.com – Online learning center for members – La Traviata – Opera Insights by Jess Van Nostrand – and also: La Traviata, A Subject for the Times – online course, by Denise Gallo
    — Guide to Understanding and Appreciating Opera – La Traviata, by Daniel S. Brink, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers Ltda, New York, 2nd edition, 2005, 143 p.
    — The Rough Guide to Opera, by Mathew Boyden, Penguin Books, London, 3rd edition, 2002, 735 p.
    — How to Understand and Listen to Opera, The Teaching Company, CD lectures with Professor Robert Greenberg, 2001
    — The Life and Operas of Verdi, The Teaching Company, CD lectures with Professor Robert Greenberg, 2003
    — The New Kobbé’s Opera Book, by the Earl of Harewood and Anthony Peatte, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 11th. Edition, 1997, pages 883-4.

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