8 January 2016 at 11.00am | Comment on this article
Violetta’s Act I aria ‘Ah fors’è lui’ is her first solo number in La traviata. So far, we have only seen her as she chooses to present herself: alluring host to her party guests, coquettish courtesan to her young admirer Alfredo. It is only after the guests have left that we see a more thoughtful and vulnerable Violetta, as she considers her response to Alfredo’s ardent declaration of love. Verdi employs traditional 19th-century Italian operatic structure in the aria: opening recitative; slow first section; transitional recitative and closing fast section (cabaletta). A master of the form, he uses this structure to offer a profound insight into his heroine’s conflicted emotions.
In the brooding opening recitative, Violetta meditates in falling phrases on how strange it feels at last to be loved. String tremolos illustrate her agitation as she ponders how she should respond. Her vocal line blossoms into an expansive, coloratura-adorned phrase as she rejoices in finally experiencing true love; and then, more pensively, she asks herself how she can possibly resist Alfredo and the affection he offers. Delicate woodwind arpeggios lead into the aria, as she meditates further.
‘Ah, fors’è lui’ opens in F minor, capturing Violetta’s melancholy as she recalls her past loneliness. The simple, lyrical vocal style shows that she is far from being the frivolous courtesan she at first appeared. As Violetta recalls Alfredo’s concern about the illness that has until recently kept her confined, the pace quickens, and a long crescendo leads us into F major. Accompanied by delicate clarinet arpeggios, sustained horn chords and pizzicato (pinched or plucked) strings, she raptly repeats, in words and melody, Alfredo’s avowal of love. The section ends in an ecstatic melisma, and we are left in no doubt that Violetta is falling in love.
However, Violetta’s profession as a courtesan has not encouraged her to trust men, and this new emotion frightens her. Exclaiming ‘follia!’ (madness), she abandons her contemplative mood. In the ensuing recitative, tremolo strings and dramatic shifts in pitch register her fear of yielding to Alfredo. She determines to continue her hedonistic lifestyle, repeating with ever more flamboyant coloratura the word ‘gioir’ (to enjoy), and launches impetuously into the aria’s cabaletta, ‘Sempre libera’ (forever free).
This is one of Verdi’s most dazzling showpieces for soprano: a frenetic A flat major waltz, whose orchestration of high woodwind and rapidly pulsing strings harks back to the act’s earlier party music. Violetta’s vocal style, all coloratura, trills and flamboyant high notes, contrasts sharply with her earlier lyric tenderness. The music’s manic quality not only depicts Violetta’s frivolous and hedonistic world, but also suggests her encroaching illness: Verdi poignantly evokes the consumptive’s swings between exhaustion and exuberant hyperactivity.
Verdi ends the cabaletta’s first verse with an astonishing theatrical device. Suddenly, we hear Alfredo offstage repeating his earlier declaration of love – whether serenading Violetta from the street, or just as a voice from within Violetta’s mind, is left for us to decide. His ardent song briefly silences Violetta; but she remains determined to banish romantic thoughts. She follows Alfredo’s final phrase with ever more vehement coloratura statements of ‘gioir!’, and a second verse of her aria – it is identical to the first, but after that brief interlude of tenderness seems even more manic.
Alfredo and his music will not be banished for good, though, and at the aria’s close we hear him again, rapid fragments of his music pitted against Violetta’s ever more agitated coloratura. Violetta wins out in the aria’s closing bars; but as we shall see, it is Alfredo and his love that will triumph eventually – with consequences both ecstatic and tragic.
La traviata runs 16 December 2016-1 February 2017.
Tickets go on sale to Friends of Covent Garden on 21 September 2016. General booking opens on 18 October 2016.
The production is generously supported by Coutts.