Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Now plumbing, to the best of an amateur's limited abilities, the complicated, eccentric but fascinating depths, to the best of an amateur's ability, of Harry Partch's manifesto, Genesis of a Music, it has proven interesting to read the iconoclastic composer's differentiation between "corporeal" and "abstract" music. 

The former, to Partch's world view, is the truer form of music, emanating from ancient Greek performances in which music, singing in speech-like patterns without embellishment, and dance are inextricable and "corporeal" in terms of the fuller expression of the human body in an environment in which the words matter in concert with the music and the dance.

From the time, however, that church music in medieval Europe began to feature elongated vocalizations and, in Partch's mind, the meaning of the text was sublimated under the desire to emphasize vocal gymnastics and histrionics, the value of corporeal music was overrun by "abstract" music.  The abstraction, further embodied in later periods in ostentatious music and vocal puffery, represents to him a regression and a denigration of the ideal in corporeal music.

As explained further by Partch, the nadir of abstraction in music comes with the modern opera, as well as other forms of music, in which, for example, overwrought emotion and the elaboration of syllables via interminable trilling and other trickeries of the human voice, along with the self-consciousness of the score, overwhelm any sense of meaning in the libretto.

It is an interesting argument and there is a good deal of sense to much of what Partch argues, if one were to believe that what is "legitimate" in music can be based on a determinable logical structure.  To this untutored music lover, though, there is as much of value in a work like Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata from the purely musical (and the vocalizing is, in a way, as much instrumental as the performance by the orchestra) standpoint, regardless of whether the lyrics and the story are understood and appreciated.  Abstraction does not have to be seen as a reduction in musical value, if one enjoys the great technical skill employed in the composition, instrumental performance, and vocalizations.

In fact, Partch's monophonic music based on forty-three semitones or ratios, while fascinating and enjoyable for an entire different set of reasons than La Traviata, can give the impression of being highly abstract (defined in another way from how Partch did) and difficult to listen to.  In other words, Partch thought of corporeal music as being truer to folk music as defined by what the Greeks did in ancient times, but his wonderfully strange music has proven to be far removed from a "folk" or, if you like, "popular" arena and has only been appreciated by a small, if highly appreciative, audience.

In any case, puffery or abstract or whatever, La Traviata is one of the greatest operas ever written and Verdi, who was prolific in composing over two-dozen operas, completed his work in 1853 on the heels of the wildly successful Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.  In this 1973 recording from Japan, released on the budget label Allegro under its "Opera D'Oro" series, the great Renata Scotto is paired with José Carreras, who was just beginning to make his mark in the opera world (long before the notorious Three Tenors project.)  Sesto Bruscantini has a notable opportunity to display his great talent in Act 2's "Di Provenzo il Mar, il Suol."  The orchestra plays beautifully, conducted by Nino Verchi.

Verdi's masterful melodic touch, emotional expression, and superb aligning of the score with the libretto and the vocalizing, is consistently brilliant throughout and Scotto is just breathtaking, while Carreras shows his formidable talent coming to the fore and Bruscantini is exceptional in the company of his colleagues' legendary abilities.

While the basis of the opera on a kind-hearted but tubercular prostitute in the Paris of Verdi's day was unconventional and controversial, its adaptation from Alexander Dumas, Jr.'s La Dame aux Camélias ultimately proved to be beyond the temporary shock of the subject matter (in England, there was no translation or summary to avoid dismay by early Victorian-era audiences there) and La Traviata took its place alongside such masterpieces as La Bohéme and Carmen as the acme of opera in the era.  It did take some reconfiguration of writing for the vocals after a subpar opening at Venice in March 1853 to propel the opera to massive public and critical acclaim.

The story of the doomed lovers Violetta and Alfredo comes to the inevitable tragic end as she succumbs to her disease as Alfredo violently laments her demise.  Verdi's integration of music, singing, story and emotion is staggering and this 40-year old performance is exceptional, even if the recording is not the state-of-the-art kind many listeners expect and/or demand now, though the remastering does a good job of trying to get close to that standard.

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