It is a while since I last recommended an opera so this week it is one of the all-time greats - La traviata. Even if you think you don't like opera, this one is definitely worth a go, it is full of tune after tune coupled with one of the most heart rendering librettos. The opera is also the second most performed throughout the world after The Magic Flute.
Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 and died in 1901, his death was marked by a national grief more associated with royalty. To this day every Italian will know Giuseppe Verdi and most will be able to sing some of his arias or choruses.
Verdi did not come from a particularly humble background, his father was an inn keeper who managed to give him a reasonable musical education (he started life as an organist). Whilst running a local orchestra he wrote an opera and daringly handed it into the holiest of holiest - La Scala in Milan. They put the opera on and it was a huge success. After a few flops he went on to write 16 operas in 11 years and wrote 28 in total.
However Verdi's life was not always easy as his wife and children died of TB after four years of marriage. He was a supporter of Italian reunification and as such was often in trouble with the authorities but he became a symbol for the nationalist movement. He then caused a scandal by living with soprano Giuseppina Streppina who he did eventually marry in 1859. However he felt that society was very hypocritical as at this time prostitution was rife throughout the Italian cities where there were 12 men to 1 prostitute. Verdi really disliked these double standards and tried to wake everybody up to it and the result was La traviata - The Fallen Woman.
La traviata is a love story aimed directly at the heart, you believe in the characters and the music speaks directly to us. From the beginning you warm hugely towards Violetta and feel desperate with the situation at the end which is all so needless. The story is of Violetta who is a courtesan (call girl) who falls in love with Alfredo, their love affair is doomed and that combined with parental interference (Alredo's father, Germont, forbids the relationship) it all leads to a climax when Violetta dies of TB. At the end of the opera when Violetta is dying, she hands Alfredo a picture of herself whilst Alfredo urges her to live and Germont is overcome with guilt, Violetta soars into her dying aria with one final exclamation, leaving the audience a sobbing wreck. At the time the opera was considered to be scandalous, even Queen Victoria was advised not to see it, how different things are nowadays.
Here are some tasters:
Libiamo ne'lieti calici - The Bridisi - drinking song at the beginning of the opera YouTube
Un di felice - Alfredo's first love song YouTube
Un di Quando le veneri - Germont telling Violetta that she must leave Alfredo YouTube
Di sprezzo degno se stesso - Germont, Alfredo and Violetta all singing about their individual woes YouTube
Ah! Gran Dio! - Violetta's slow march to her death youTube
Se una pudica vergine - her death YouTube
It is difficult to know which recording to recommend, there are so many and every soprano wants to have a go at this great role. The greatest Violetta was Maria Callas but her recording on EMI Classics is mono and live, so to our rather spoilt ears the sound is terrible. There have also been several excellent new recordings. So I turned to an ex-colleague of mine from EMI days, Simon Millward whose company is Albion Media and asked him, to which he replied: "Easily the greatest studio recording is Carlo Kleiber on DG with Domingo and Cortubas. No other has ever come near it."