Σάββατο, 1 Σεπτεμβρίου 2012

T-9: Verdi vs. Puccini: The TBC factor.

(This entry was indeed written during the last days of August, however, due to unforseeable complications, I was unable to upload it the moment I wanted. So, just ignore the fact that it is September, and read on...)

It’s one of those last August days, where you know that summer is drawing to an end, simply because the heat is once again giving you its last blazing afternoons, making you wish that September comes sooner rather than later. Then again, this is Greece and whether September comes or not, it’s one and the same. The temperatures are probably going to be high even then. It’s kind of funny, considering that the people here curse the heat every day and the northerners envy us for it – it is, by the way, the only thing they envy us for right now.
Normally, on such a hot day, my brain would simply be a mess, unable to do anything else other than lying on a bed and shooting pigs out of their nests on my iPod. Yep, I too am an addict of that game… But, I had a surprisingly good week and after taking a short midday swim, I feel like expanding the list a bit. And it is also a fitting 9th spot, because it will bring the temperatures down a bit – figuratively speaking. And no, my 9th opera is not La Bohème.
Between the two “La’s”, that is La Bohème and La Traviata, I prefer the latter one (actually, there are a lot of “La’s” in opera, but these are the two most popular nowadays). *Side note to self: this seems like it’s going to end up being a comparative analysis, rather than an examination of one work.* Alright then, let the comparison begin!


Let’s start with the obvious: both operas have a heroine who dies of tuberculosis – hence the TBC in the title. What a novel, but definitely ignoble way to die. Both operas take their storylines from two books, with Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias being more popular even today, than Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème. I admit having read the first one, but not the second one. And I think that’s about everything those two operas have in common. Oh, yeah, they both play out in Paris and its suburbs, but don’t expect any scenes at the Eifel Tower.
Off to the differences then: Verdi’s heroine is a high society prostitute. Puccini’s is a simple and most definitely innocent young girl who makes fake flowers for a living. Violetta likes it big and pompous, Mimì is happy with a bonnet or a muff to warm her hands. Violetta has had many lovers and rich friends, but never taken a relationship seriously; Mimì’s relationship with Rodolfo is probably her first one – alas, it was meant to be her last one as well. As far as the guys are concerned: Verdi’s Alfredo is like Puccini’s Mimì at the beginning: innocent and honest – a deadly combination. There is nothing predatory about him and he is your dream guy. He seems to have some money, although we never find out what he does for a living. Apparently he lives off his father’s money. And he is a romantic, believing in true love and love at first sight etc etc. Puccini’s Rodolfo on the other side is, well, a social misfit. He claims to be a poet, but he is clearly an unsuccessful one. And he lives in a flat with four other guys, all in the same dire financial situation as he is. Marcello the painter, Schaunard the musician and Colline the philosopher – thankfully, the last one doesn’t do a lot of on stage philosophy, otherwise this opera would be a total flop… But, because these guys are living the big Parisian life from the bottom side of society, they don’t really care about things that much. They do make a big show however on the odd chance one of them manages to bring some money to the flat, which means they get to eat and drink again. Well, there’s none of that in Verdi obviously! There is a big show, but Violetta is the one who organizes it, because she can and because that is expected of her. Also, Verdi’s version of a romance has a much better pick up line than Puccini’s. Verdi’s Alfredo sings a really catchy toast song, whereas Puccini’s Rodolfo says to Mimì she has cold hands… And she falls for that! Ugh! I guess that’s all part of the “verismo” genre, right?
And now comes the big moment where I have to explain why I don’t like La Bohème and prefer La Traviata. It has nothing to do with the music, first of all. Both operas have really beautiful music – although I can hear the musicologists chastising me for my Verdi choice, because in their minds Don Carlo and Falstaff are much better. (Having seen the Don recently, I will agree with the scientists, but, have you seen the bloody plot? Seriously! It’s nuts! I might even write something about it one day, but not today.) So, if it’s not the music that bothers me, it’s – what else – the heroine. I have a huge problem with “innocent” girls in operas. There aren’t many, mind you, and most of them simply feel off to me. Even Rossini’s Cenerentola falls into that category – no one can be that forgiving; ok, it’s a fairy tale, totally different subject! But Mimì is annoying. There is no embitterment in her character. I’m not saying that poor people are all embittered; some know how to enjoy life better than the rest of us. But no, Mimì borders on sainthood. And that is never good! Isn’t La Bohème supposed to be a verismo opera? Well, there is nothing realistic about its lead character, because she is flawless! No human being is flawless, period! The only thing that saves this particular opera for me, is – drum roll, please… – Musetta! Yes, this very sexy, but deeply emotional femme fatale is my favorite character here. At least her love affair with Marcello is a lot more passionate than Rodolfo’s and Mimì’s. And she is a true friend to Mimì, no matter the differences in character. Also another really annoying feature of this opera is Rodolfo’s cowardice. Why is he a coward? Well, he abandons Mimì not because he doesn’t love her any more, but because she is sick and he doesn’t like that. Seriously? That alone tells me that his interests in Mimì at the very beginning were entirely of a carnal nature, rather than emotional ones. Suits him well that Mimì has to die in the end, forgiving him for his stupid character, making him realize that he actually loved her. Damn those librettists, right?
So why is La Traviata better? For one, Alfredo is a very convincing young man. He falls truly in love with someone he definitely shouldn’t; he lives the perfect life for a while, at the expense of his beloved without knowing it himself, because – let’s face it – every guy is essentially a boy who seeks a mother figure and Violetta does that perfectly well; he feels truly betrayed by Violetta, not knowing that she sacrifices everything for him, including her life (the scene where he throws the money at her in front of all their old friends is a true shocker); he realizes his mistake with some help and comes begging for forgiveness, only to find his lover on her deathbed. Alfredo shows true signs of maturing during the opera and the process happens naturally, so to speak…
A second reason is Alfredo’s father, Germont Sr. He is a very ambivalent persona in the play, but there is no doubt of his noblesse and steadfastness. At first he appears as the evil guy, since his plan is to break up Violetta and Alfredo. And the reason he gives, namely that he is unable to marry off his only daughter because her brother is living together with a courtesan, sounds dubious today. But back then it was really a shocking thing for anyone to be living with someone of a promiscuous nature… And anyone daring such a thing was sure to be cut off from society and be viewed under a very examining eye. But, we know that Germont Sr. is not a bad guy, because Verdi provides his character with some of his greatest music and the music signifies a caring and loving man, as it turns out in the end. He does, albeit a bit reluctantly, become a father figure to Violetta as well, which is why it is so fitting that in the end, he should be writing her to inform her of the outcome of the duel between Alfredo and the Count-what’s-his-name.
The third reason La Traviata trumps La Bohème is Violetta. She reminds me a lot of all the witches that suffered in all the opere serie of the baroque time. Just like any of those, she indulges herself in carnal affairs, neglecting the soul. And just like them, when true love strikes, she is unprepared for it and it consumes her literally. The only difference with those witches of old is, they were, most of the time, immortals; whereas Violetta is very mortal and very aware of it. Which is also the exact reason why she spends her life in frivolity, shying away from relationships and decency. She knows she can only hurt the feelings of whomever falls in love with her, and therefore, instead of dying on the potential lover, she chooses to be “free”. Her freedom, as is the case, comes at a very high price. But she loves paying it. There are no regrets when her time comes, because in the end, she has lived it all.
The fourth reason is a biographical one. Not mine; Verdi’s. This particular story strikes close to home for the good man, for he too fell in love with an artist who was famous for her promiscuity and yet he managed to whisk her away from that kind of life and they actually had their happily ever after. Of course, society didn’t see it that way and they were shunned; mostly her, for Verdi was the rising name in music and politics. Eventually, the two married and their bond was somewhat accepted, although I think that some people never really forgave Verdi the transgression.
And finally, the last reason why La Traviata is better than La Bohème is… Violetta’s music from beginning to end! It is tough stuff to sing, since in the first act there is a lot of coloratura (the “Sempre libera” aria), then there is a lot of dramatic and begging music in the second act (the whole Germont Sr. scene) and in the end one has to be subdued enough to be convincing in the whole She’s-dying-from-tuberculosis thing (the haunting letter scene in parlando and of course the brilliant “Addio del passato”). Violetta’s music is yet another proof that this particular opera was something very personal for Verdi. He composed heavenly stuff for this heroine, making it obvious that he feels for her like no one else. Which is also why Violetta is Verdi’s most realistic figure of all. She is clearly three dimensional, she is flawed in many ways – including the fact that she is a courtesan – and she undergoes major changes throughout the play. Something I don’t see happening with Mimì’s character (in all fairness, she too has some good music composed for her, but it never really gets me very emotional, not in the least). On a weeping scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being no weeping at all and 10 drowning one hanky after another in tears, La Traviata wins with a clear 9, by contrast to La Bohème which gains a meager 5. Still, it’s better than nothing I suppose…
I do have one last comment to make about the perfect Violetta: In my humble opinion, and no, you are not permitted to argue with this particular one, the perfect Violetta would be a combination of Anja Harteros’ voice and Natalie Dessay’s acting skills and looks. Harteros’ voice is perfect for the role, because she masters coloratura and drama fantastically, and Dessay is the embodiment of Violetta: frail, yet full of life and perfectly capable of transporting you away with just one look. Should this combination ever grace the planet, then the world has my permission to end. But not before that… As for who’s the perfect Mimì… I don’t really care!