“O Signore, dal tetto natio”
“Pane, pan per caritá... Nella guerra"
Karin Mushegain and the Chorus
Ms. Mushegain and the Chorus with Anderson Alden on Drum
Preghiera: “Padre Eterno, Signor…pietá di noi”
Shana Blake Hill, Ms. Mushegain, Alex Boyer, Ben Lowe, Manfred Anaya, David Childs, Raed Saade, and the Chorus
“Solenne in quest’ ora”
Mr. Boyer and Mr. Lowe
“Gli arredi festivi”
Finale Primo: “Lo vedeste?”
Ms. Hill, Mr. Boyer, Mr. Lowe, Christina Roszhart, Mauricio A. Palma II, and the Chorus
“Che si vuol?”
Mr. Boyer and the Men’s Chorus
“S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale”
Ms. Hill, Ms. Mushegain, Mr. Boyer, Mr. Lowe, and the Chorus
Act I, Scene 1: “Dell’invito trascorsa è gia l’ora”
Ms. Hill, Ms. Mushegain, Mr. Boyer, Thomas Hollow, Mr. Childs, Mr. Palma, Andrew Walker, and the Chorus
Ms. Hill, Mr. Boyer, and the Chorus
“Si grande amor”
Ms. Hill and Mr. Boyer
“Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora”
Gypsies and Matadors
The Chorus with Ms. Mushegain and Mr. Childs, with Anderson Alden on Tambourine
“Come Along to the Ball”
Mr. Boyer and Mr. Lowe
“What a Joy to Be Here”
“Chacun à son goût”
A Toast to Champagne
Ms. Hill, Ms. Mushegain, Mr. Boyer, Mr. Lowe, and the Chorus
“Sing to Love”
Ms. Hill, Ms. Mushegain, Mr. Boyer, Mr. Lowe, and the Chorus
To celebrate our 35th Anniversary, the Verdi Chorus features scenes from four operas by our namesake composer, Giuseppe Verdi: I Lombardi, La forza del destino, Nabucco, and La traviata. The Force of Destiny is not only the title of this concert as well as one of the operas, but might aptly be used to describe the circumstances leading to Verdi’s first great success, Nabucco, and its aftermath. After the failure of his second opera and the devastating deaths of his young wife and two children, Verdi had resolved to give up composing and return to his small home town. According to his memory years later, it was only by chance that a persistent producer insisted that he look at the libretto of Nabucco, whose great success was to be the first in a long line of them. Verdi went on to a composing career that spanned almost 60 years. Nabucco established him as a major composer as well as an important symbol at a crucial time in the formation of the modern country of Italy, whose destiny was so closely tied with his. Two of the choruses in this concert are in effect alternative national anthems in Italy, “Va, pensiero” and “O Signore, dal tetto natio.” Nabucco also began the twelve-year period that Verdi was to call his “years as a galley slave,” where the demand for new works by him was so great throughout Italy and then the rest of Europe that he frequently endangered his fragile health due to overwork. The galley years were to culminate in La traviata, perhaps his most-loved opera. La forza del destino is an example of his later work, where he again broke new boundaries in musical drama. The force of destiny may have sparked Verdi’s great career, but it was the force of his genius and his own dedication to his art that remains with us today.
I Lombardi alla Prima Crocciata (The Lombards at the First Crusade) premiered in Milan at Teatro alla Scala in 1843 and featured the same librettist, Temistocle Solera, as Verdi’s first great success, Nabucco. Based upon an epic poem by a popular Milanese poet, Tommasso Grossi, I Lombardi was an immediate popular success (although not a critical one). As Nabucco had, I Lombardi appealed to the nationalistic feelings of Italians still enduring the rule of Austria. It particularly pleased its Milan audience with an opening scene showing a familiar church, and a scenario that made it seem the Lombards (and thus the Milanese) singlehandedly won the Crusades. It was the first of Verdi’s operas to be produced in the United States (in New York in 1847) as well as in a rewritten version in Paris in 1847 under the title Jerusalem. It is rarely performed today, due in part to its convoluted and improbable plot as well as its overwhelming scenic demands (including “practicable” hills usable by the performers).
The opera is set in the year 1096, first in Milan, then Antioch, and finally Jerusalem. Arvino, son of the Lombard king, leads his countrymen to the First Crusade following the murder of their father by Arvino’s brother Pagano. It take months for the Crusaders to reach Antioch, where Arvino’s daughter Giselda is captured by the enemy and falls in love with Oronte, son of the Tyrant of Antioch. Following great hardship, the Lombards win their final battle and capture Jerusalem.
In the final act of the opera, crusaders and pilgrims are found in the Lombard camp near Rachel’s tomb outside Jerusalem. Exhausted by their rough journey and racked by thirst, the Lombards remind God of the trials they have endured in his name. He has called them from their native homes (“O Signore, dal tetto natio”) and they have joyfully endured their harsh path. They pray that He will not make a mockery of his faithful warriors. As they recall the beauty of their native land’s fresh breezes, fair brooks, crystalline lakes, and vineyards gilded by the sun, they tell God that their longing for their homeland is even harsher than the arid soil of Palestine. An early biographer of Verdi noted that at its initial performance, the chorus aroused a storm of political approval. Indeed, along with “Va, pensiero,” this chorus is still taught in elementary schools in northern Italy as a patriotic anthem.
Verdi employed Francesco Maria Piave as librettist (the last of their eleven collaborations) to adapt the Spanish play Don Alvaro by Angel de Saavedra, a great success in Spain in 1835 which launched the romantic movement in Spanish theater. Commissioned by the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg for an astronomical fee, the premiere of La forza del destino was received unenthusiastically (due in large part to the nationalistic fervor among Russian composers and the public) but went on to greater success in Italy and the rest of Europe. The opera ranges across Spain and Italy in the 18th century against the backdrop of Italy’s drawn out battle for independence from Spanish rule (a topic dear to Verdi’s heart).
La forza del destino follows the failed elopement of Leonora and Don Alvaro, the accidental killing by Don Alvaro of Leonora’s father when he tries to stop their elopement because Don Alvaro is half-Inca, and the relentless pursuit of the lovers by Leonora’s vengeful brother Carlo as the three protagonists are repeatedly separated, then tragically reunited as war rages around them. The opera ranges across Spain and Italy and spans the entire period of the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48.
Leonora and Alvaro escaped from Seville after the death of her father, pursued by her brother Carlo, but in the turmoil of the war have been separated. In Act III, after years of travail, all three have reached Italy, unrecognized by each other in their various disguises. Following a bitter battle in which the combined forces of Spain and Italy have triumphed, but with great loss of life on both sides, the soldiers in camp are enjoying a respite. They banter with merchants and vivandières (women who run canteens for the army) and revel in their victory. A group of refugees and beggars enter with their children. They beg for bread for charity’s sake (“Pane, pan per caritá,”) saying the war has devastated their fields and they are starving. They are echoed by young recruits who were forced to desert their poor mothers, leaving them in tears. Torn away from the enchantment of their beautiful sweethearts, they long to return home. The lively vivandières tell them to forget their mothers and girlfriends, for it’s useless to think about the past. Offering them drinks, they say they’ll love them like sisters – they know how to console them. Surely the young women aren‘t devils, so the boys should dry their tears. The head vivandiere Preziosilla chides the soldiers and tells them to be brave – are they mad? If they cry like babies, they’ll only be laughed at by their comrades. Look around at the pretty faces eager to console them. Preziosilla, the soldiers, and the vivandières rouse themselves with a lively tarantella because in war (“Nella guerra,”) it is folly that can cheer up the camp. Hooray for madness, which is the only thing that can reign there.
As the soldiers, vendors, and vivandières carry on their mad tarantella, they drag a Franciscan monk into their midst and spin him around in the dance. He is outraged that he has come to care for their physical and spiritual needs and finds them flirting with Venus and Bacchus. As he rails at them, the Spanish and Italian soldiers become equally enraged and begin to beat the monk to drive him away. Preziosilla tries in vain to get them to release him, but when they won’t listen to her, she begins to beat a drum to get their attention. Other drummers join in and soon the entire corps is mimicking her drumming and the sound of tambourines (“Rataplan.”) Preziosilla exclaims that the love of glory fortifies the soldier and the sound of the drum is the precursor to victory! Now the ranks are gathered to fight, and the enemy’s flag is retreating. Pursue those who turn their backs in flight. Destiny crowns your glorious wounds with triumph! Victory shines on the valor of their sons and conquers every heart for the warriors.
In an earlier scene in Act II, months after the accidental slaying by Don Alvaro of Leonora’s father, both she and her vengeful brother Carlo have arrived in a small town in the north of Spain at the same time but unbeknownst to each other. Carlo, posing as a student while he hunts down the lovers, is dining with the mayor along with traveling merchants, muleteers, and the vivandières . As they sing of the glories of war, Eleonora enters disguised as a man and is shocked to recognize her brother. She escapes his notice as they hear the sound of pilgrims praying outside the inn (“Padre Eterno, Signor…pietá di noi.” The Mayor explains to Carlo and the other travelers that they are pilgrims going to celebrate the Jubilee, and Carlo responds that they should wait until they pass. All kneel and join the pilgrims in prayer. Meanwhile Leonora looks in vain for a way out of the inn, praying to be saved from the brother who longs for her blood. As the guests in the inn pray that God will save them through his goodness, Leonora says that if God does not save her, then no one can, and she joins in their prayers for mercy.
Back in Italy in Act III, Don Alvaro and Carlo have both risen in the ranks of the army under assumed names. Alvaro saves Carlo’s life in a battle with cardsharps and they quickly become fast friends, swearing eternal loyalty to each other. Following a terrible battle in which Alvaro is badly wounded while leading the troops to victory, he sends away the surgeon in order to speak to Carlo alone. Alvaro tells Carlo that he must vow to him in this solemn hour (“Solenne in quest’ora”) to carry out his final wish. Carlo swears that he will, and Alvaro instructs him to look near his heart, where Carlo finds a key. Alvaro points to his valise and says that in it Carlo will find hidden a packet of papers which he entrusts to Carlo on his honor. Within them is a mystery that must die with Alvaro. Carlo must burn it when Alvaro is dead. Carlo swears that he will do so, and Alvaro responds that now he can die in peace as he clasps his friend to his heart. Carlo entreats Alvaro to put his trust in heaven. As the surgeon and soldiers come to carry Alvaro away to operate, the two friends bid each other farewell.
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and his first great success, opening at La Scala in Milan in 1842. The composer himself was to write in later years, “With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” The premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of “Va, pensiero,” a chorus that has remained one of Verdi’s most beloved pieces. Unusually, the choruses were singled out for acclaim in the reviews of Nabucco. An early pupil and assistant of Verdi, Emanuele Muzio, wrote that following the immense popularity of Nabucco and I Lombardi, Verdi was known as “il padre del coro” (the father of the chorus). Verdi had a particular facility for vivifying the choruses in his operas. He treated the populace not just as decorative props who commented on the action, but frequently made them a central character – often the people oppressed by the power, wealth, and tyranny of the leading characters. Verdi’s early career was quite difficult, professionally and emotionally. His first opera, Oberto, was a mild success, but his second, Un giorno di regno, was miserably received and canceled after only one performance. In the period between Oberto and the completion of Un giorno, Verdi suffered from financial difficulties and had one of the frequent bouts of ill health that would plague him throughout his life. Even worse, during these years, both of his children died very young, and he lost his beloved wife to rheumatic fever – hardly the ideal circumstances for creating a comic opera. In spite of his grief and his desire to abandon his career, the libretto for Nabucco inspired him to write his first great triumph. Verdi told the newspaper critic Stafford of the Daily Graphic in January, 1893, years after Nabucco’s premiere, of the difficult circumstances of its La Scala premiere: “The artists were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations to the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the Va, pensiero, but before they had got through half a dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church. The men had left off their work one by one, and they were sitting about on ladders and scaffolding listening! When the number was finished, they broke out into the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.” That future included 75 performances at La Scala alone in the opera’s first year, followed by success throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. Its first two years alone saw more than 50 different productions, including a performance conducted in Vienna by Donizetti, who had championed the work even before its premiere.
Nabucco had another significant role to play in Verdi’s life. The La Scala star for whom he specifically wrote the role of Abigaille – perhaps the most exciting (and exacting) role in the opera – was Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi was a renowned singer at the time and an enthusiastic supporter of Nabucco, urging the management to give it a good position in the season. She was soon to become a friend and advisor, then Verdi’s mistress, and finally his wife of 38 years.
Nabucco (originally entitled Nabucodonosor) is based on the biblical history of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon (referred to in the libretto as “Assyria”). It is set in Jerusalem and then Babylon during the reign of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 B.C., who destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.). As Nabucco begins, the Assyrian army is about to capture Jerusalem. Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is a captive of the Hebrews, who threaten to kill her if their city is taken. Fenena is in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the Jewish king, after rescuing him from imprisonment when he was Jerusalem’s ambassador to Assyria. Abigaille, Fenena’s sister, also loves Ismaele and threatens revenge on both of them for Ismaele’s rejection of her. After overcoming the Hebrews, Nabucco destroys their temple and takes them into captivity in Assyria. During Nabucco’s absence at other wars, Abigaille attempts to usurp the throne. Nabucco returns in time to thwart her plan but is struck by lightning and driven out of his senses when he claims that he is God. Abigaille assumes the crown and plans with the Assyrian priests to have all the Hebrews executed (including Fenena, who has converted to their faith). Nabucco regains his sanity and reclaims power. Recognizing that their God is supreme, he releases the Hebrews from captivity and promises to erect a new temple, while the repentant Abigaille begs for forgiveness as she dies from poison she has taken.
In later years, Verdi claimed that La Scala’s producer Merelli forced Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Nabucco on him in spite of Verdi having determined to give up his career. As Verdi threw the manuscript onto a table, the libretto fell open at the page with the opening lines of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” inspired by Psalm 137 lamenting the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Unable to resist reading the rest of the libretto immediately, he then reread it several times that evening. Whether Verdi’s mythologizing in later life is true or not, the premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of Va, pensiero (in spite of the Austrians’ having banned encores in Italian theaters during the Austrian occupation, fearing any spontaneous political demonstrations). The chorus has remained one of the most beloved pieces of music in Italy. Sung by the captive Jews as they labor by the banks of the Euphrates, awaiting death at the hands of their Babylonian captors, the chorus – described by the composer Rossini as a grand aria sung by sopranos, contraltos, tenors, and basses – resonated deeply with an Italian public under the yoke of Austrian occupation. The Hebrew slaves send their thoughts on golden wings (“Va, pensiero,”) to rest on the slopes and hills scented with the sweet air of their native land. Let them greet the banks of the Jordan and the fallen towers of Zion. O fatherland, so beautiful and so lost! O memory, so dear and so fatal! Why does the golden harp of the prophets hang mute on the willow? They ask for their memories to be rekindled in their hearts and speak to them of the time that has been. O, like Solomon, draw forth a song of cruel lamentation from their fates so their Lord may inspire them with the strength to endure.
The first scene of Nabucco takes place in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The terrified Hebrews rush into the temple, bemoaning the final onslaught of the barbarian hordes led by Nabucco, the King of Assyria. They cry out for the festive decorations of the temple to be thrown down and shattered (“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti,”) as the family of Judah clothe themselves in mourning. The king of Assyria as the minister of God’s wrath is about to crush them. The terrible howling of the barbarous troops thunders in the temple of the Lord. The priests tell the young women to rend their white veils and cry out as they lift their arms in supplication, for the prayers from their innocent lips are like a pleasing fragrance rising to the Lord. Through them the fury of the fierce enemy horde will be rendered useless. The virgins pray that their great God, who flies on the wings of the winds and hurls thunderbolts through the quivering clouds, will destroy and scatter the Assyrian horde. The daughters of David will rejoice! They have sinned, but let their prayers find mercy in heaven and forgiveness for their sins. The Hebrews ask if the wicked will be allowed to cry out with bold-faced blasphemy: “Does the God of Israel hide Himself out of fear?” They entreat Him not to let His children fall prey to a madman who scorns His eternal power. Don’t allow the Assyrian outsider to sit on the throne of David among his false Assyrian idols.
The High Priest Zaccaria had exhorted the Hebrews to leave the temple and fight off the approaching Assyrians. However, they are routed by the Assyrians and rush back into the temple in the Finale to the first act. Horrified by the sight of the raging Nabucco erupting like thunder from the horde of Assyrians (“Lo vedeste?”) and brandishing his bloody sword as he approaches the temple, they watch as their remaining soldiers fight in vain to defend the holy place. Their prayers and weeping are cursed by heaven, and they envy those lucky ones who died before the dawn of this day. The overcome troops rush in to warn that Nabucco is almost there, charging on his horse like a whirlwind, bringing black ruin everywhere.
Nabucco enters the temple on his horse and is cheered by his daughter Abigaille and the Assyrian troops (“Viva Nabucco!”) Zaccaria is outraged at Nabucco’s entering the temple on his horse, but Abigaille tells him his vain pride will not stop the king. Zaccaria warns Nabucco that the insane man should tremble in the house of the Lord, and Nabucco asks what God he speaks of. Zaccaria seizes Nabucco’s daughter Fenena and holds a knife to her throat, saying that before Nabucco will profane the temple, Zaccaria will massacre his daughter. Dismounting his horse, Nabucco tells himself to dissemble, and then his rage will burst forth even stronger. The mad priest should tremble at his fury, and all of them will fall victim. The tears of wicked Zion will flow in a sea of blood! Abigaille is thrilled that new hope shines before her, appeasing her fury since perhaps her rival for happiness will fall, avenging her hate. Fenena begs her father for mercy as the Hebrews pray that their great God, who can turn the hearts of kings, will help them, and Nabucco continues to rage that they will end in a sea of blood.
Ismaele has saved Fenena’s life by seizing the knife with which his father threatened her, and all of the Hebrews have been taken prisoner. Unaware that Fenena has converted to their religion, they are outraged at Ismaele’s treachery. The Hebrew men have been summoned to Fenena’s chambers by Zaccaria. Wondering what is wanted of them (“Che si vuol?”), they ask who has summoned them so late at night, and are horrified to be met by Ismaele, who says the High Priest has sent for them. They order Ismaele to leave and call him accursed of the Lord. Ismaele implores their mercy, but they tell him that the accursed has no brothers, nor anyone on earth who will speak with him. Ismaele begs them to cease their curses. Fear of being branded by God is driving him mad, and death would be preferable.
Following the enslavement of the Hebrews, Nabucco has left Babylon to wage other battles. Abigaille and the High Priest of Baal have falsely proclaimed that Nabucco is dead and seize the throne from Fenena in reprisal for her freeing of the Jews. As Abigaille reaches for the crown, Nabucco enters with his troops and seizes the crown from both of them. As he rises over all, Nabucco warns them that the moment of his fatal anger is drawing near (“S’appressan gl’istanti d’un’ira fatale.”) Seeing the terror on their silent faces as the thunderbolts are about to fall on them, he warns them that a day of mourning and wretchedness approaches for them. His family and subjects fearfully take up his dire words, which carry a different meaning for both Abigaille and Zaccaria, both sure that they will prevail.
La traviata is set to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on Alexandre Dumas fils’1848 novel and 1852 play La dame aux camélias (more popularly known in English as Camille). Dumas’ work was a lightly fictionalized portrayal of the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis, who had liaisons not only with Dumas but other celebrated artists and nobles in mid-19th century Paris. The composer Franz Liszt wrote of her as the first woman he ever loved and praised her exquisite nature. Known in the novel and the play as Marguerite Gautier, the character was played to enormous success by such figures as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse on stage and Greta Garbo on film.
Verdi had contracted for a new opera for La Fenice, then as now the major opera house in Venice, to be composed and premiered in the same remarkable three-year period in which he created Rigoletto (also for La Fenice) and Il trovatore. Following the riotous success of Il trovatore in Rome in early 1853, Verdi returned to his home in Lombardy exhausted and ill. Already behind schedule on a first draft for his commitment to Venice, he set to work with his longtime friend and collaborator Piave (most recently the librettist of Rigoletto). Verdi became enamored of the idea of fashioning an opera from Dumas’ Paris success of the previous year. Verdi was constantly searching for material that would allow him to move forward, both musically and theatrically. Although he was advised against choosing such a subject and setting it in his own time, he pointed out that no one had liked the idea of a hunchback as an operatic hero, and Rigoletto had turned out to his and everyone else’s satisfaction. He worked feverishly with Piave to finish the piece, simultaneously battling with La Fenice’s management over casting issues and staging the piece in contemporary dress (which his eternal nemesis, the censors, refused to accept since apparently a contemporary courtesan was not acceptable, but one in the period of Louis XIV was.) He lost both battles but nonetheless allowed the production to proceed, with the mise en scène now set in the era of Richelieu instead of the 1850’s.
True to his predictions, La traviata did not achieve a great success at its premiere in March, 1853 (only two months after the premiere of Il trovatore), although it was not the “fiasco” which Verdi repeatedly deplored in numerous letters to friends. Having declared that time would tell whether its “failure” was his fault or the singers’, he withdrew it from subsequent productions until the appropriate cast could be found. This was achieved only a year later, first at a different theater in Venice where it met a brilliant success, followed by productions all over the world. (It was not, however, staged in contemporary dress as Verdi had intended until 1906, in Milan.) La traviata soon joined Rigoletto and Il trovatore in the mighty triumvirate of Verdi’s middle years, and it remains not only one of his most beloved works, but one of the most popular operas in the world.
Having originally named the opera Amore e morte (Love and Death), he took as its title the heroine’s characterization of herself as “La traviata” (slang signifying a courtesan, but also meaning “the lost”). With the character Marguerite now named Violetta, Verdi created what is perhaps his greatest portrayal, a vibrant and soulful beauty who enchants everyone she encounters. Liszt described the living prototype of Violetta as a woman whose heart was never touched by corruption, and it is this nobility of spirit that Verdi captured with such sympathy and grace.
Set in the Paris demimonde of the 19th century, it is the star-crossed love story of the glamorous Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont, an innocent young man from the provinces who has loved Violetta from afar for some time. He quickly charms her with his unabashed ardor and charming manner. Violetta gives up her luxurious life and retreats to the country with Alfredo, who is later shocked to discover that Violetta has been selling her possessions to support them. Alfredo rushes to Paris to try to raise funds, and Violetta is visited by Alfredo’s father, who initially castigates her for ruining his son’s life. He soon recognizes that Violetta is not what he had expected, and he begs her to renounce the liaison with his son, which threatens the proposed marriage of Alfredo’s young sister. Although heartbroken at the prospect of losing Alfredo, Violetta agrees and scribbles a note to him announcing that she is returning to her former life (and patron) in Paris. The furious Alfredo follows her to Paris where he confronts her at a grand party and insults her in front of all of their friends. His father and friends are shocked by his behavior, and Violetta’s patron challenges him to a duel. In the final scene, the dying Violetta (racked by consumption) is visited by both Alfredo (who went abroad after wounding his rival) and his father, who has told his son of her magnanimous sacrifice. Violetta is overjoyed at his return and swears that she will survive to forge a new life with Alfredo, but her ecstasy at their reunion is too much for her, and she dies in his arms.
The opera opens on a grand party at the home of Violetta Valéry. As she mingles with her guests, some of them chide others for their lateness (“Dell’invito trascorsa è gia l’ora,”) who respond that they were gambling at Flora’s house and the hours flew by. Violetta greets Flora and her friends, telling them to let the rest of the night shine with other joys. With a drink, the party will be livelier. Flora and her companion the Marchese ask if the party may be too much for Violetta, but she replies she puts her faith in pleasure as the cure for her ills, and her friends agree that life is doubled by enjoyment. The young vicomte Gascon introduces Alfredo to Violetta as the best of friends. Alfredo is greeted by the Marchese as Violetta invites her guests to enjoy a feast that will open every heart. The guests declare that secret cares flee from a good wine and a feast. Gaston confides in Violetta that Alfredo thinks only of her, and when Violetta says he’s joking, replies that when she was ill Alfredo came to ask after her every day. Surprised, Violetta asks Alfredo if it’s true and he admits it. Violetta thanks him and points out to the Baron Douphil, her patron, that he didn’t do so. As the guests raise their glasses, Gaston calls for a toast, first from the Baron, who sullenly refuses, and then Alfredo. Alfredo says that inspiration hasn’t smiled on him, but when Violetta says it would please her and is echoed by her guests, Alfredo replies that he has it already in his heart.
Raising his glass to her, he says to drink from the merry goblet (“Libiamo”) that beauty adorns and the fleeting hour will intoxicate with its voluptuousness. Drink to the sweet thrill that love arouses, as Violetta’s eyes conquer the heart. Drink to love, love that mixed with wine makes kisses the hotter. Violetta responds that with her friends she can share time joyfully. Everything else in the world that doesn’t give pleasure is folly. Let us be joyful, for the joy of love is fleeting and rapid, a flower that is born and dies and can no longer be enjoyed. They should enjoy themselves, for fervent words only flatter. Her friends join in, exclaiming that wine and song and laughter make the night beautiful. May the new day find them in this paradise! Violetta tells Alfredo that life is only for enjoyment, and he replies that is true only if you haven’t yet loved. She tells him not to say that to one who doesn’t know how to love, but he vows it will be his destiny to teach her.
As the other guests go into the ballroom to dance, Violetta feels faint. Quickly recovering, she sends the guests away, but Alfredo stays behind. He tells Violetta that her lifestyle will kill her, and she must guard her health. She replies that no one really loves her, but he replies that he does, and would do anything to care for her. Violetta teases him that she had forgotten what a great love he feels (“Si grande amore”) and he responds that she must have no heart to laugh at him. As he swears that he is serious, she asks how long he has loved her. He replies that it has been a year. One happy day (“Un di felice”) she appeared before him, flashing, heavenly. And since that day, trembling, he has lived on that unknown love, that love that pulses through the entire universe, mysterious, majestic, both a cross and a delight to the heart. Violetta answers that if that is true, he should fly from her. She offers him only friendship – she doesn’t know how to love, nor can she allow such a heroic love. She is frank, simple: he must seek another, and then it will be easy to forget her.
The guests return from the ballroom, exhilarated from dancing, and prepare to leave. Dawn has awakened in the sky and they must leave (“Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora.”). Thanks to you, kind lady, for this splendid evening. The city is filled with parties and the times have turned toward pleasure. In resting they’ll recover the stamina to enjoy themselves once again.
Alfredo’s father Germont has persuaded Violetta to leave Alfredo so that his sister, Germont’s daughter, will not have her chances at a happy marriage ruined because of her brother’s profligacy. After Violetta sends Alfredo a letter saying she has left him for the Baron, Germont arrives and attempts to convince Alfredo to return home with him. He tries to comfort him and to dry his tears. Reminding him of the sea and the sun in their native Provence (“ Di provenza,”) he wonders who has erased them from Alfredo’s heart? What destiny has stolen him from his radiant native sun? Oh, remember even in his sorrow what joy glowed in him there, and that only there can peace shine on him once more. God has guided Germont to his son! Ah, Alfredo doesn’t know how much his old father has suffered. With Alfredo far away, his house has become covered in misery. But if in the end he has found Alfredo again, if hope did not fail him, if the voice of honor has not been silenced in Alfredo, then God has answered him!
The second scene of Act II is set at a masquerade party at the palace of Violetta’s courtesan friend Flora to which Violetta has retreated after fulfilling her promise to Alfredo’s father to leave him. Masqueraders present themselves as young gypsy women (“Noi siamo zingarelle”) who have come from far away to tell their futures. When they consult the stars, nothing is hidden from them. They begin to read the guests’ palms and tell Flora that she has several rivals and say her lover the Marchese is unfaithful. As Flora and the Marchese bicker about his infidelity, the fortune tellers advise everyone to throw a veil over the past. What’s done is done, and they should only pay heed to the future. Other masqueraders burst on the scene saying they are matadors from Madrid (“Di Madride noi siamo matadori”), warriors from the bullring. Listen to a story that will show what lovers they are! They tell the tale of the handsome matador Piquillo from Biscay, who loved a young Andalusian woman. The reluctant beauty told him that she must see him bring five bulls to earth in one day. If so, on his return she would give him her heart. He told her that would be play for him and proceeded to conquer all five bulls. Flora and the other ladies applaud his bravery. By such feats do matadors win the hearts of ladies, but here at the ball the men and women agree they need only make believe in order to win at the game.
Die Fledermaus was based on the popular French farce Le réveillon by Offenbach’s frequent librettists Mailhac and Halévy. Although thought unsuited to German and Austrian audiences (in spite of having been adapted by Mailhac and Halévy from a German play), the canny Viennese producer Max Steiner gave it to successful Viennese librettist Richard Genée, who soon found the key to making it “Viennese” and drastically restructured the original. Strauss was delighted with the libretto and was said to have composed non-stop for forty-two nights (supposedly even neglecting to eat and drink) to complete Die Fledermaus. Set in Vienna, it premiered in 1874 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and has been a staple of the musical stage ever since.
The title (which means The Bat) refers to a prank once played by the wealthy rake Eisenstein on his friend Falke. Having gone to a costume ball (Eisenstein dressed as a butterfly and Falke as a bat) where they both drank too much, Eisenstein abandoned his friend under a tree. Falke woke (still dressed as a bat) to the jeers of street urchins and the laughter of the town as he walked home. Falke has planned his revenge, and his complicated scheme unfolds during the evening in which Fledermaus takes place.
On the eve of Eisenstein’s going to prison for eight days for insulting a tax collector, Falke has come to bid his friend farewell. Falke tells Eisenstein they should enjoy one last night on the town at a masquerade ball at Prince Orlofsky’s palace. Eisenstein can wait until morning to go to prison, and Falke urges him to “Come along to the ball”. Unable to resist a night of dancing with willing young women, Eisenstein agrees to pose as the Marquis Renard, thereby falling into “the bat’s” trap.
As Act II opens on the ballroom of Prince Orlofsky’s palace, the ball is in full swing. Servants serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres as the elegantly dressed guests happily exclaim, “What a joy to be here!”
Given Austria’s frosty relationship with Russia in 1874, the satiric portrait of the Russian Prince Orlofsky was a likely source of amusement in Vienna during a bitter economic crisis. Traditionally a trousers role for mezzo-soprano, Prince Orlofsky greets Falke with the lament that “Never in my life have I been so bored. Everything bores me. I cannot laugh. My billions are my misfortune.” As the waiters bring more champagne, the Prince acquaints his guests with the rules of the palace: “Each to his own taste” (“Chacun à son gout.”)
In order to get his revenge on Eisenstein for the bat episode the year before, Falke has invited Rosalinda, Eisenstein’s wife, to attend the Orlofsky ball in disguise as a Hungarian countess. When her maid (dressed in one of Rosalinda’s gowns and posing as an actress) and her husband become suspicious that she’s not really a Hungarian countess, Rosalinda proves it by singing a song from her homeland, set to a traditional Hungarian dance known as a Czardas.
Prince Orlofsky proposes a toast to the glamorous Hungarian countess who still refuses to unmask. As the guests raise their glasses, Orlofsky, Eisenstein, and Rosalinda’s maid Adele join with the throng to celebrate “Champagne’s delicious bubbles”.
Seeing that all are carried away by the champagne and the air of romance at the ball, Falke proposes a toast to love and brotherhood, and Orlofsky and his guests gladly “Sing to love.”