Wine and Opera part 5: La Traviata

14th March, 2014 by Rupert Millar

Libiamo ne’ lieti calici

437px-VerdiLeaving behind the light-hearted realms of old Heidelberg and Bohemian bucolia, we plunge once more into the bosom of loss and despair.

Giuseppe Verdi (pictured) has so many drinking scenes in his operas that one could create an entire list out of them alone.

However, there are a couple of standouts and most famous of all is this “brindisi” from one of his most celebrated operas, La Traviata – a “brindisi” being an exhortation to a company to drink and they comprise the majority of “drinking songs” in opera.

The name of the opera is, The Fallen Woman, and centres on the happy and then increasingly unhappy relationship between the female lead, the consumptive courtesan, Violetta and the romantically inclined Alfredo.

The opera opens with a party at Violetta’s home and Alfredo’s friend jokes to her that Alfredo has always loved her from afar.

During the party when Violetta’s lover, the Baron Douphol, refuses to give a toast, Alfredo steps into the breach, showing off his voice with “Libiamo ne’lieti calici”, the others joining in as the song goes on.

Alfredo: “Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici
che la bellezza infiora.
E la fuggevol, fuggevol ora
s’inebrii a voluttà
Libiam ne’dolci fremiti
che suscita l’amore,
poiché quell’occhio al core onnipotente va.
Libiamo, amore, amor fra i calici
più caldi baci avrà.”

“Let’s drink, let’s drink from the joyous chalices
that beauty so truly enhances.
And may the brief moment be inebriated
with voluptuousness.
Let’s drink for the ecstatic feeling
that love arouses.
Because this eye aims straight to the heart, omnipotently.
Let’s drink, my love, and the love among the chalices
will make the kisses warmer.”

Having caught Violetta’s eye, the two become lovers, she abandons the boring an heartless baron and by Act II the pair are living a peaceful life outside Paris, she having rejected her former life as a courtesan.

Violetta however cannot escape her past, the baron wants her back and the stage is set for lots of heartbreak.

One day, while Alfredo is out, his father calls and pleads with her to break off her relationship with his son as it is blackening his good name as well as that of his daughter who is as yet unmarried.

This she does, tearing herself away painfully and much to Alfredo’s distress.

Alfredo, suspecting the involvement of the baron resolves to confront him and win Violetta back.

His distress turns to hate however when she arrives at the party of a mutual friend on the baron’s arm and he believes her to have simply pretended to love him all the time – now having run back to a richer patron.

Consumed with fury, there is an unpleasant episode where Alfredo wins a large amount of money from the baron at the gaming table, which he throws at Violetta as “payment for her services”, denouncing her in front of the assembled company of still being a courtesan (and more strongly a “whore” at that).

The baron challenges him to a duel which is fought off-stage and during which we are told later, Alfredo won though he only lightly wounded the baron.

In the end though, having rejected Violetta and with her tuberculosis returning, he discovers the truth behind her leaving and rushes back to her side filled with love for her once again.

The lovers are reconciled only for Violetta to expire in Alfredo’s arms as the curtain drops.

Anyone noting a resemblance in plots between this and Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge are completely correct although it should be noted that both works are actually based upon Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux caméliasThe Lady of the Camellias.

A work from 1848, it features an equally torturous relationship between a young man and a consumptive courtesan who wears different coloured camellias to indicate her sexual availability to her lovers according to the delicacy of her condition.

As with the works it subsequently inspired, it doesn’t end well.

Next time: wine, sex and damnation – art imitating life in Don Giovanni
Previously: Beer and Czech nationalism in The Bartered Bride

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