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Musician perspectives: Verdi

Violinist Tyme Khleifi shares her perspective on Verdi, whose Prelude from Act 1 and 3 of La traviata and Ouverture from La forza del destino feature on the program of the  Waldbühnenkonzert, 25 August.

It has only been a few weeks since I listened to La traviata for the first time. It was as I expected – beautifully composed music that embodies Verdi’s grandly romantic compositional style set to a libretto based on Alexandre Dumas’ quintessential 19th-century Romantic novel. But from the start of the ouverture, it becomes clear that there is something else going on.

Clocking in at roughly 4 minutes, the overture of La traviata is quite short compared to other Verdi overtures. It could easily feel like a mere formality – every opera starts with an overture, thus Verdi was obliged to write one but he seems more anxious to have the audience listen to the opera itself. In fact, the most famous scene of the opera, “the drinking song,” comes shortly after the start of the first act, as if he couldn’t wait to get started.

So how does this modest piece impress itself upon the listener?

Verdi’s overtures give a summary to the story of the opera. This one is no exception, dancing through the spirit of the piece. But intriguingly, it starts at the opera’s tragic finale, with the violins playing a slow melody and weaving together mostly minor and diminished harmonies, thus creating an ominous atmosphere. This soon is resolved into a delightful dance that, while not particularly exuberant, is certainly not depressive.

The overture ends blissfully, leaving the listener with a glow that is soon interrupted by the grandly operatic start of the first act. Listeners like myself – ones who feed off of romantic stories and have a soft spot for happy endings – might well be deceived by Verdi’s narrative ploy. Of course, the expectation that Violetta and Alfredo are truly going to end up happily together makes our hearts race. But alas, the overture to the third act confirms what we should have known literally from the start: It recapitulates the ominous start of the overture to the first act. Instead of resolving into a light-hearted dance it carries on into the morbid third act and the tragic ending for the opera’s star-crossed lovers.

Verdi plays a game with our expectations, a game that we can only appreciate in hindsight.