Thursday, October 23, 2008

Verdi's "La Traviata": a lesson for today's concerns about "online reputation"?


In September, the Washington National Opera put on Giuseppe Verdi’s "La Traviata" (“One who goes astray”), and made a free broadcast Saturday 13 in the (slightly oversized) Nationals Park outfield. I missed that because of storms, but found a lot on Netflix to make up for it. The WNO link is here.

The most compact performance on DVD seems to be the 1968 Rome Opera performance with Giuseppe Patane conducting. Anna Moffo plays the tragic courtesan heroine Violetta Valery; Franco Bonisolli the overly conscientious lover Alfred, and Gino Bechi is Alfredo’s patriarchal father. The distributor is Video Artists International (VAI) and the production is photographed in rather muted, sepia colors for the lavish internal sets. The director is Mario Lanfranchi.

The opera is based on the novel La Dame aux Camelais, by Alexander Dumas son (his father wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo”). The DVD puts the opera as four acts, with Act II divided into two acts here. It’s more common to present the opera in three acts, with two intermissions (as the Washington opera does).

The story is a moral parable. Violetta sacrifices all she has (in material possessions) out of love for Alfredo but Alfredo’s father manipulates her out of the relationship, claiming that Alfredo’s family reputation will be injured by Violetta’s as a coutersan. There is a libertarianesque gambling episode in a 19th century Parisian Las Vegas (when Alfredo tries to win back her sacrifice), the possibility of a duel to settle honor. But she is dying of tuberculosis, the incurable white plague of her era. The whole story seems oddly relevant to the twists about today’s concerns about online reputation.

The music has its famous choruses and an abundance of triple time and compound (like 6/8) meters. The most thrilling chorus closes Act III on the DVD (or II in most perfomances). When she dies at the end, the music comes to a violent (“Sturm und Drang”) close, apparently in D minor, with the style that is normally appropriate for ending the first movement of a romantic symphony in a minor key. The prelude to the last act, a quiet passage for strings in a minor key, is one of Verdi’s most original, in an opera that abounds in more conventional harmonic progressions.

Netflix offers a one-hour documentary from Kultur and AudioVisual Concept (Germany), “La Traviata: Love & Sacrifice: The Story of the Opera” (dor. Marie Blanc-Hemerline) that traces the plot with excerpts from singers including Kathleen Cassello, Angela Gheorghiu, Marie McLaughlin and Carla Bastro as Violetta. Here is a link for the DVD: The DVD says that the original premier was a failure and that the audience had a hard time with the subject matter. The opera is poignant but not dramatic in the usual sense.

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