Posted on Tue, 2014-03-04 12:31 by Opera Explorer
Linda Richardson’s journey as an opera singer begins with Verdi: ‘It was when I saw Verdi’s Rigoletto at English National Opera that I saw Cathryn Pope playing the role of Gilda, and I thought, ‘I want to be that girl!’’ And amazingly, the dream came true for Linda: ‘Later on, when I became a principal artist at ENO, I played the part of Gilda in that production, wearing exactly the same dresses!’ I caught up with her in preparation for a performance of Verdi’s ever-popular classic, La traviata, (which literally translates as ‘she who has strayed from the path’) in which she plays the role of Violetta, the consumptive courtesan who makes the mistake of falling in love.
The story unfolds over the course of three acts, which throw up very different musical and dramatic challenges to the singer, as Linda explains: ‘To play Violetta, you have to have three different voices, effectively. In Act I, you have to be a coloratura soprano – meaning that your voice has to be very flexible, and capable of singing rapid vocal lines very lightly.’ The first-act aria ‘Sempre libera’, sung by Linda in the trailer above, brilliantly demonstrates the formidable virtuosity that Verdi demands. In this aria, Violetta is toying with the idea of leaving her life of partying and riches for the love of the young aristocrat Alfredo.
This stratospheric, acrobatic writing has its roots in the 19th-century bel canto - ‘beautiful singing’ – style, in which vocal trills and runs traditionally added mythological or social gravitas to a character, elevating them above the sphere of ordinary mortals. I asked Linda what she thought this highly ornamented style signified for the deeply human, conflicted character of Violetta: ‘I think it represents her confusion – there’s a feverish quality to it’. Although these moments of artistic virtuosity command our attention in the same way that a pirouetting dancer can inspire awe through sheer technical prowess, this stylistic device can equally be seen as a symbol of Violetta’s internal dilemma, wrought in intricate vocal detail.
‘In Act II, the role is much more that of a lyric soprano,’ Linda continues. ‘This means that the melodic lines are much broader and fuller, and you can enjoy much more full-bodied singing.’ At the opening of this act, we see that Violetta is now living in the peaceful countryside with her beloved Alfredo. The peaceful idyll of this refuge is shattered when Alfredo’s father visits Violetta, and persuades her to leave his son for the sake of his reputation. Germonte thinks that he is not asking much of her, assuming that she has no real emotional attachment to Alfredo. But as Linda explains, the tragedy is that ‘Deep down, Violetta wanted to be loved all along. The emotion here is very raw – and this sacrifice is a huge thing for her.’ In the end, she renounces her lover, returning to her former benefactor, in the hope that she will gain spiritual redemption: ‘She sings l’umo é implacabile – the man [Germonte] is implacable, and says that perhaps by making this sacrifice, she will make her way to heaven.’ The increased arc of Verdi’s vocal lines allows for a heart-rending expression of this defining sacrifice, as sung below in concert performance by Renee Fleming and Dmitri Khvorostovsky.
‘In the final act, you carefully have to add dramatic style into this full lyric voice, because of the situation at that point.’ When the curtain rises on act Three, we know that the heroine’s time is almost up: she is confined to her bed, the ticking time-bomb of her consumption from the very first tremulous notes having finally run its course. ‘In the final act, you carefully have to add dramatic style into this full lyric voice, because of the situation at that point.’ Violetta is weak with fever and consumption, and the singer has to dextrously feign consumptive symptoms, such as coughing and physical weakness, whilst still projecting and shaping the arc of Verdi’s melodies. Linda adds; ‘You have to be on top form to sing this role, but it you’re not feeling 100%, having a slight cough can actually aid you!’ If the singer intones this last scene too robustly, it stretches even the bounds of operatic ‘realism’ – always a problematic notion in an inherently ‘unrealistic’ art-form - to their limits.
American scholar Carolyn Abbate writes about the dramatic effect of Violetta’s heart-breaking Act III aria, ‘Addio del passato’ (‘Farewell to the dreams of the past’), which is ostensibly a traditional aria, but whose internal repetitions – such as the broken-record effect at 2.17 and 4.54 - suggest a ‘weary and forced’ quality to the music.
She writes, “This is not a dying woman improbably managing to sing a final aria, but an aria that reaches its hand out to animate a moribund body, forcing it to sing, and then sing the same thing again.’ The ‘puppet’ effect of this phenomenon heightens the impression of Violetta as a victim of forces beyond her control: just as she must sing, and her singing is propelled on by the orchestra, so she must die, for the sake of convention and the restoration of moral order. But for Linda, as a performer, it is important to think of Violetta as being a real person: ‘You have to understand life to sing this role – there is so much to give her character. In Rigoletto, Gilda was a girl – but Violetta is a woman!’ She may have strayed from the path, but La traviata will stay in our hearts for a long time!