THE VIOLETTA’S “FARMACO” – Browsing inside the score of La Traviata.

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  • THE VIOLETTA’S “FARMACO” – Browsing inside the score of La Traviata.

Dear Blog friends
here we are to resume the thread of this endless discourse on the most curious aspects of musical repertoires.
This time, I would like to stop and observe a small passage in the score of La Traviata, to taste together the hidden value of certain words in the libretto.
A value that is revealed thanks to the refinement of Verdi’s language. His music, in fact, casts a beam of light on the most secret aspects of the text and offers depth to the poetry, according to the ancient alchemy of “canto Lirico”.

Sheet music of La Traviata, ed. Ricordi (reduction for voice and piano), c. 1883. From IMSLP

We are in the very first bars of the opera.
The party in Violetta’s house is in full swing, the dialogue is tight, sustained by the binary polka rhythm that introduces and permeates the entire scene.
Such excitement certainly belongs to the exuberance of the démi-monde represented, but also to Violetta’s inner condition, to her ‘sick’ life. It is no coincidence that, according to 19th-century medicine, one of the typical symptoms of consumption was feverish activity and restlessness.
It is very easy that, in the excitement of the moment, this brief dialogue between Violetta, Flora and the Marquis goes unnoticed by the spectator.
But, as the saying goes, the truth (or the devil, or God) is hidden in the details. And in this attention to detail Verdi is a master.
Let us take a closer look at the few lines we have chosen.

Marie Duplessis, the real “Dame aux Camélias”, in a watercolour by Camille Roqueplan (1845)

There is a certain indelicacy in the Marquis and Flora’s question, “E goder voi potrete?”, addressed to a Violetta who has just recovered from a long period of infirmity. Not to mention the sexual implication of the verb “godere” (to enjoy), used with obvious reference to her role as a mantenue. Probably Piave (and Verdi) use it precisely as a presentation of Flora’s tackiness and, at the same time, as an allusion to Violetta’s “career”.

Violetta’s response seems to show a certain pride: “Lo voglio” (p. 6). An act of courage and struggle against fate and consumption.
But Verdi’s music immediately comes to contradict such strength. “Lo voglio” is sung with a descendent motion, revealing the protagonist’s hidden hesitation. A tangible sign of how ‘improper’ is the life she leads. But not socially ‘improper’. No, inadequate to her true feelings which, in fact, shortly afterwards, will be revealed to her by Alfredo’s absolute dedication, by the rise of “quell’amor ch’è l’anima / dell’universo intero” (Act I, scene 3). A “true feeling” that has its roots in her innocent childhood, when “…un candido / e trepido desire / questi effigiò dolcissimo / signor dell’avvenire” (Act I, scene 5). Moreover, the expression “lo voglio” seems to herald the verb used in the cabaletta at the end of the act: Sempre libera degg’io” (scena 5). Two moments of the same imposition on herself.

Maria Spezia Aldigheri, the soprano who brought the role of Violetta to full success. Vintage daguerreotype, by an anonymous author. 

Continuing the reading of the passage we have chosen, we see the melody descend further into the evocation of “pleasure” (p. 7): yet another skilful contradiction between text and music that reveals what the words would like to conceal. The surge that follows (“ed io soglio con tal farmaco”) touches on A4 and sounds like a new, heartfelt revelation of the nature of this “pleasure”: an act of the will and not of desire.Not bliss, ecstasy or enjoyment, but a palliative “drug”: its only effect is to relieve pain (“i mali sopir”). But the “mali” are not only those of consumption. They are also the ills of the soul, necessarily hidden in the life of a courtesan.
And the real healing antidote has yet to come into play: Alfredo is there, silent and adoring beside Gastone. 

Consider, then, the use of “staccato” notes for this phrase. The accentuation of each syllable is intended to be affirmative and resolute, but the melody and text reveal shadows that are still unacceptable to Violetta. Even the small pause that breaks the word “soglio” is a sign of suffering. A missing breath due to phthisis, but also due to the uncertainty that runs through an artificial truth. The orchestra faithfully follows the singing and doubles it, underlining the importance of this first “presentation” that Violetta makes of herself, of her masks and hesitations, of her volitional fragility.

Poster for the “premiere” of La Traviata – Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 6.3.1853

What can we say facing such lyrical refinement?
It is always true that, in great works of art, the truth (or rather, the many truths) are revealed precisely in the details. Their sum constitutes that ground of inexhaustible fertility in which our enjoyment as passionate music lovers is nourished.

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