Learn more about Celebrating Plácido with program notes, history, artist bios, and more.
Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata, Act Two
La traviata (1853) is certainly the most romantic of Verdi’s operas, and the most beloved by the public. Based on the play La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas the Younger, the opera premiered catastrophically in Venice. It very quickly caught on, however, stunning audiences with a contemporary realism very unusual for the time. It also rapidly earned the affection of sopranos everywhere, since Verdi created in Violetta Valéry probably the most enchanting, sympathetic, and multifaceted heroine in Italian opera.
A courtesan in fragile health, Violetta lives a life of lighthearted pleasure in Paris. At a party in her home she meets a young man from the provinces, Alfredo Germont, who has loved her from afar. He makes his feelings clear, leaving her wondering whether this is the true love she never thought would be hers.
In Act Two, having abandoned her Paris life, Violetta is living with Alfredo in the country. He is blissfully happy, but when he learns from the maid, Annina, that Violetta has been selling her property to pay their mounting debts, he rushes off to Paris to raise the necessary funds. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, arrives, outraged by his son’s liaison with Violetta. He insists that Violetta must give up Alfredo for the sake of his family, reminding her that she can easily find a new lover. Violetta agrees, knowing that leaving Alfredo will hasten her death. Germont urges her to live, since heaven will reward her sacrifice. After he departs, Violetta is writing a farewell note to Alfredo when he returns. She seems distracted but, when he questions her, she begs him simply to love her as much as she loves him and runs from the room.
A messenger delivers Violetta’s note, and Alfredo reads only a few lines before despair overwhelms him. When his father appears, he urges Alfredo to return to the family for comfort. Noticing an invitation to a party at the Paris home of Violetta’s friend, Flora Bervoix, Alfredo assumes she has returned to her former lover, Baron Douphol, and resolves to confront her.
In the second scene, everyone at the party is enjoying a Spanish dance. Arriving without Violetta, Alfredo wins handsomely at the gaming tables. A pale Violetta enters, escorted by Douphol. He challenges Alfredo, who continues to win. Before going in to supper, Violetta passes a note to Alfredo asking him to meet her. Once they are alone, she begs him to leave, since she fears Douphol’s jealousy. He refuses, finally drawing from her a confession that she loves Douphol. Summoning the guests, Alfredo renounces Violetta and throws his winnings at her feet, announcing that he has now repaid her in full. Having followed his son to the party, Germont reproaches Alfredo for insulting a woman, even in anger. Douphol challenges Alfredo a duel, while Violetta laments that Alfredo will never understand the sacrifice she made for love.
Verdi, I vespri siciliani, Overture
The 1855 French-language premiere in Paris of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) was a great critical and popular success. The opera presents a fictionalized account of a 13th-century Sicilian rebellion against occupying French forces. Verdi later supervised an Italian translation but, due to political pressure, he removed the action from its Sicilian setting. In fact, it wasn’t until after 1861, in Italy’s post-unification era, that the opera regained the Italian title it is most commonly performed under today, though even that version remains a relative rarity on the stage. Nonetheless, Verdi’s overture to I vespri siciliani is one of the most forceful and inventive in his oeuvre. As the overture begins to incorporate themes from the opera’s key dramatic moments, the initially stormy mood yields to passages of both vigor and stirring lyricism.
Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, “Dinne perchè…Orfanella il tetto umile”
Based on a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez (the same playwright who inspired Verdi’s 1853 opera, Il trovatore), Simon Boccanegra premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 1857 to lukewarm reviews. Twenty-three years later, Verdi’s revised, much-improved version – what we most commonly hear today – opened at Milan’s La Scala. The opera weaves a complicated story of power, intrigue, and vengeance in 14th-century Genoa. The prologue introduces Simon Boccanegra, a plebeian candidate for doge, who has had a secret affair with the daughter of Fiesco, an influential aristocrat, resulting in a lovechild. Boccanegra discovers that his lover has died and their daughter has vanished just as he’s elected doge of Genoa.
In Act One, 25 years have passed and Boccanegra, still the doge, has exiled his enemies, including Fiesco, who lives in a palace outside the city under the assumed name, Andrea Grimaldi. There, he is guardian to an adopted young woman, Amelia. She is in love with Gabriele Adorno, who is conspiring with her father to overthrow Boccanegra, but their romance is impossible; Amelia is to be joined in a political marriage arranged by the doge. Boccanegra arrives and Amelia confesses to him her love for Gabriele and the story of her lowly birth. During the course of a lyrically sublime and deeply moving duet, Boccanegra produces a small locket with a picture of his lost love; this causes Amelia to show her own locket. The two are startled to discover the pictures in their lockets are identical, as they realize they are indeed a long-lost father and daughter reunited.
Gounod, Faust, “Salut, demeure”
Gounod’s enormously popular Faust, a mainstay of the French repertoire ever since its premiere in 1859, adapts the well-known story of the aging scholar who, feeling his life’s work will amount to nothing, sells his soul to Méphistophélès in exchange for youth. The object of Faust’s affection is Marguerite, the young maiden who symbolizes, for him, his fateful desire for eternal youth, beauty, and virtue. In a simple cavatina form – highlighting musically the idealized simplicity and perfection of the maiden – Faust celebrates the innocence of Marguerite and the idyllic house and garden where she lives. Musing poetically on Marguerite’s physical beauty and spiritual chastity, Faust expresses gratitude to nature for making such an angelic woman.
Giordano, Andrea Chénier, “Nemico della patria”
Set amidst the political turmoil of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, Umberto Giordano’s beloved opera Andrea Chénier (1896) presents a story of love, sacrifice, and social upheaval. The opera’s popular position in the repertoire has endured in part because of the rich and virtuosic array of music for the tenor in the title role.
A quintessential verismo opera, Andrea Chénier centers on the relationship between the title character, a poet, and Maddalena di Coigny, the young aristocratic woman he loves. Maddalena’s servant, Carlo Gérard, also carries a secret passion for her and, as he joins the revolutionary movement with growing fervor, he uses his power to condemn Chénier to execution by guillotine. Midway in the opera, Gérard is preparing to write his indictment against the poet as an “enemy” of the nation. In a stirring monologue, he realizes the error of his ways and confesses his disillusionment with the ideals of the French Revolution.
Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur, “Io son l’umile ancella”
Francesco Cilea composed five operas, but his fame rests solely on Adriana Lecouvreur (1901 premiere, La Scala). Arturo Colautti’s libretto was based on a play of 1849 cowritten by two of France’s best-known dramatists of the mid-19th century, Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. Their protagonist, Adrienne Lecouvreur, was a real-life figure (1692-1730) – in fact, the most celebrated French actress of her time. Lecouvreur brought to French theater a significantly more natural textual delivery than audiences had experienced previously. Her romance with an illustrious military hero, Maurice de Saxe, provided the heart of Cilea’s opera. The real-life Lecouvreur’s death remains forever a mystery, but it has always been rumored that she was poisoned by her rival for Maurice’s affections. Colautti used the rumor for its dramatic power in the opera’s dénoument, having his Adriana breathe in the scent of poisoned violets sent by the vicious Princesse de Bouillon.
Although the opera’s tenor lead was created by Enrico Caruso, Adriana Lecouvreur has survived thanks to its title role, irresistible to sopranos possessing the requisite vocal and physical glamour. Prominent among the score’s major highlights is Adriana’s fervent Act One aria. It finds her backstage at the Comédie Française, rehearsing her lines before making her entrance in a performance of Racine’s Bajazet. When her admirers praise her artistry, she responds that she is simply the “humble handmaiden of creative genius.”
Bizet, Les pêcheurs de perles, “Au fond du temple saint”
In 1863 Bizet was just shy of 25 years old when Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) premiered to generally antagonistic reviews at Paris’s Théâtre Lyrique. Modern-day critics and audiences have a much more generous assessment of Bizet’s early opera, seeing even in this effort the composer’s considerable melodic gifts, as well as his emerging talent for creating evocative orchestral textures. Sung early in Act One, “Au fond du temple saint” has become one of the best-known of all opera duets. Nadir, a fisherman, returns to his native Ceylon after many years away and is reunited with his old friend, Zurga, who has recently been elected fisher king by the other pearl fishers. Though once their friendship was compromised by falling in love with the same woman – the Brahmin princess, Leïla – the two declare their loyalty to each other and their desire to remain steadfast friends.
Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia, “Zitti, zitti, piano, piano”
Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) based, like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, on Beaumarchais’s 18th-century comedic trilogy – is celebrated worldwide for its unforgettable music, comic energy, and lovable characters. Its 1816 premiere in Rome’s Teatro Argentina, however, was met with jeers and hisses from devotees of an older composer, Giovanni Paisiello, whose own operatic version of the story had been popular since 1782. But the opera became a resounding success for the 24-year-old Rossini, who later claimed to have written his stunning success in only twelve days.
Rosina, a gorgeous young woman with a sizeable inheritance, is kept in the house of Doctor Bartolo, her strict and curmudgeonly guardian, who intends to marry her. But she is also loved by Count Almaviva, a Spanish aristocrat. Unable to reach Rosina unnoticed, the count employs Figaro, a barber in Seville, to enter Bartolo’s house in order to alert Rosina to the presence of her suitor, who serenades her disguised as a poor student. Once inside, the count reveals his true identity. But as the count and Rosina joyously sing of their romance, Figaro notices someone approaching who might discover the affair. In a delightful vocal and comedic tour de force, he urges the couple to escape, quickly and quietly, down a ladder from the window.
—Richie Hofmann and Roger Pines