La traviata is a traditional Italian opera, which means it is dominated by the voice. Of course Verdi loved the sound of an orchestra, he used the woodwind to tell us when Alfredo is weeping, or the strings to give us the quiet side of Violetta in the prelude – but he never allowed the instruments to drown the singers.
The vocal music is split into solos, ensembles and Finales.
The solo is a moment when time stops still as a singer comes forward to tell you how they feel. If their emotions are particularly complicated, Verdi usually writes them a cavatina , an aria with at least two sets of feelings. So for example when Violetta doesn’t know whether to accept Alfredo or not, she sings about her loneliness and then, pouring some champagne, sings about her freedom. Whatever the emotion, the music will be written to show off the singer’s voice – their top notes, sense of drama, or sheer ability to sing lots of notes very fast.
Watch the end of Violetta’s cavatina in Act 1
Ensembles are pieces of music for more than one singer. Two singers sing a duet, three singers a trio and so on. At the very end of the opera five people sing a quintet together – Violetta, Alfredo, Germont, the Doctor and Annina – all expressing their conflicting emotions as they realise Violetta is about to die.
If the whole chorus is involved, then an ensemble usually becomes a finale.
These are great set pieces at the end of an act. They are normally started by a couple of singers having a confrontation, other characters run on stage, then the chorus, and eventually the whole company is drawn into the drama, and send the audience off for the interval with the sound of their massed voices ringing in their ears.
Listen to the Act 2 Finale
Traviata is full of ensembles and choruses and yet it is a quiet work. At the heart of the drama are the shifting emotions of the heroine, her dialogues with her lover and his father, the hurried conversations, the flashes of happiness, and the moments when singing ceases as grief overcomes her. There is even a spoken passage – when Violetta reads the letter from Germont. Verdi used every musical gesture he had in this opera, and he never repeated its lightness of touch.