(They are by Mozart, Monteverdi and Dvořák if you’re wondering.) A 2012/13 trawl of the most performed operas worldwide included all three of ours this year: Don Giovanni was number 10, La bohème number 3 and La traviata number 1. Some of you will be disappointed. You’ve seen them all, perhaps many times, you “know” them. But as AJ Ayer used to say on The Brains Trust “it all depends what you mean by know.” All three happen to be masterpieces, made by masters of their craft; and if it’s written by a master it’s always worth delving into it some more however well we think we know it.
Remember too that this is the perfect year to introduce new audiences to opera, with three of the best.
As I say, my personal Top Ten is a bit unusual, but Verdi in general and La traviata in particular would have to be included because it touches parts of me the others don’t reach. Traviata is a grand opera that isn’t grand, because the crux of it is private.
What singles out the great composers? One thing is the ability to express intense private emotions in music we all feel. The text of Alfredo’s aria for example, about feeling a love that is like the ecstasy of heaven, might seem commonplace until Verdi gets hold of it and sets it soaringly. “Addio del Passato”, Violetta’s farewell to past dreams of happiness, becomes in Verdi’s hands a brittle cry of loneliness, suspended out of time.
Once you know this music it seems like it was always there, but Verdi’s notebooks show these were not shapes that emerged fully formed; he chiselled away at his material until he found just the right balance of heightened passions.
Imagine you are the composer of a scene in which a young woman of dubious reputation
is confronted by her lover’s father. He finds himself touched by her sensitivity, impressed with her intelligence and moved by her tears. He enters her room expecting to disapprove of Violetta, but he suddenly understands his son’s infatuation. How do you express his feelings? Verdi’s memorable phrases of “Piangi, piangi” already begin tugging at your heart, but then there is a masterful harmonic side-slip onto a chord that slays you. There’s no need for the audience to know the harmony, but these are the sort of things that make Verdi the special one.
One of the advantages of going to a familiar opera is the chance to compare the live voices with ones you’ve heard before and ones you love or hate from recordings. But on recordings and filmed performances we only hear what the sound engineer decides is a suitable balance. Live performances really are live and the sound is un-doctored, except through the filter of the conductor. Our new production of La traviata will provide fresh vocal experiences because we’ve invited a soprano and a tenor who are relatively new to their roles. Reckless? I don’t think so. Sam Sakker sang such a lovely audition for us last year that I invited him to come for a second one — which was even better. Since we engaged him, Covent Garden has taken him on. Lorina Gore can’t wait to sing Violetta, nor should she. She’s already a terrific soubrette, and now it’s time for her to step up. Look out!
By Wyn Davies, Director of Music, NZ Opera.