Violetta Valéry in La Traviata is a strong, compelling role that has inspired successful films such as Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge. She is a woman who desperately tries to be free from her life as a courtesan and the binds of society. Freedom is finally found in the form of love but it is tragically taken away from her.
Violetta was at the top of my list of roles to play but is also, quite frankly, a bit frightening. Even the greats have said how notoriously difficult the role is. Renee Fleming said “Sometimes I wonder if Verdi actually just didn’t like the soprano he was writing it for” and before going on stage for the act one cabaletta, Sempre Libera, she thinks to herself “Well let’s see if we get through it tonight.”
So why is Violetta a challenge, even to singers at the top of their game? Well, she is on stage for most of the opera, so stamina and good vocal technique is a must. You have to be physically and vocally fit to play her, a good night’s sleep before is also important. As an actress you have to live and breathe every second of this complex woman’s journey and constantly keep that dark cloud in the form of her illness hanging over her throughout. Plus, in a smaller space like the Tricycle Theatre, the audience need to see every thought and emotion clearly. Playing illness and fragility to the point of death convincingly is no mean feat. There can be no room for “park and bark” where opera singers just stand and sing, fabricating their emotions. If the audience are to be taken on Violetta’s journey right through to the end, the actress playing her needs to be completely invested in the character.
Then there is the singing. Not only do you need to sing this role with sensitivity, power and beauty but you also need the agility to meet Verdi’s demanding requirements. Each soprano’s voice has different strengths whether it’s coloratura, easy high notes, a dramatic quality or seamless legato. La Traviata needs the soprano to have all of these qualities in one performer. Diana Damrau, who played Violetta at Covent Garden last year, admitted that “the role of Violetta in La Traviata is a difficult one… You hear people say that you need three sopranos to sing one Traviata because all the acts are very different. You have to show the journey.”
This is very true; I have found that I need to approach each act with different attitudes and vocal disciplines. In fact, one Violetta is the life and soul of the party; her music is full of high, sparkling, crisp notes and coloratura. The wonderful duet between her and Alfredo when they are first alone requires lightness and flirtation in the voice and this culminates with the vocal fireworks of Sempre Libera.
After a short period off stage, we say goodbye to these florid runs and trills and move to a more vulnerable Violetta, one which requires beautiful, lyrical and legato singing. The showdown between Violetta and Germont is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons to see La Traviata. Not only is the music stunning but the drama of the scene is so consuming and relentless. She tries so hard to remain strong throughout the scene but when she finally gives into Germont’s demands she sings a single b flat note on a simple “Ah.” It is heart wrenching; have a listen to Maria Callas, one of the greatest Violettas, sing this.
Finally we see Violetta as she breathes her last; the ‘third soprano’, Damrau, talks about weak and struggling for breath between phrases. Yet periodically Verdi cranks up the drama as a frustrated and delirious Violetta sings out with dark and dramatic tones as she fights her imminent death. This gives way to frailty and pathos as her notes float above the audience’s heads and break their hearts. Thanks to Verdi, every thought, every failing breath, every detail required to sing and play this character is written in the music.
Violetta’s life is tough, as is the job for the soprano playing her. We have months of preparation and endless hours of practice and training, so that those all important money notes sound easy and consistent. The cast is put through the emotional ringer with each performance; usually I finish an opera and head down to the bar for a drink, but with La Traviata it is different, we all walk off stage feeling a bit shell shocked. Whether it is a production at Covent Garden or the Tricycle Theatre, this timeless story told through powerful music moves the audience to tears and stays with them long after the performance ends. This is why it is a privilege to play “The Fallen Woman” and the challenge is well worth it.
Verdi’s La Traviata runs at the Tricycle Theatre between 22nd June and 4th July 2015.
Please visit www.tricycle.co.uk for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit: Andreas Grieger