The Singer's Spirit
©Lisa Houston 2022
Baritone Aria Study: Di Provenza il mar
from La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
By Lisa Houston
“Weep, weep o miserable one.
I see the supreme sacrifice
That I ask of you now.
Courage, the noble heart will triumph.”
These are the words librettist Francesco Maria Piave gave to the character of Georgio Germont in Act II of Verdi’s La traviata. The old man has just asked his son’s lover to renounce him, and instructs her, the ailing Violetta, how to bear up under the great loss that awaits her. This moving and persuasive scene is only recounted after the fact in the novel, and later the play, La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas fils, upon which the opera is based. But Piave included it, and Verdi gives it some of his most beautiful music, assigning, as he did in Rigoletto and Il trovatore. the most beautiful duet in the opera to characters who are separated by a generation.
This scene between Germont and Violetta precedes the aria we are studying here, and any valid interpretation of the aria will be infused with the poignancy of what has come most immediately before.
Background: The novel La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (as opposed to his father, the writer Alexandre Dumas père,) became a huge success and the talk of Paris upon publication in 1848. Giuseppe Verdi was living in Paris at the time with his not-yet-wife, singer Giuseppina Strepponi. The story appealed to the composer, now in his forties, and widowed.
Soon, Verdi and Strepponi returned for a time to Verdi’s hometown of Busseto, but the two felt less than welcome. Verdi’s former father-in-law was one of a number of residents who did not necessarily appreciate the native son living unmarried with a singer. Barezzi was and would remain a towering figure in Verdi’s life until Barezzi’s death in 1867. A wealthy and influential man in Busseto, Barezzi was more than the father of Verdi’s first wife, who died of illness along with their child. He was an important nurturer of Verdi’s talent, someone who had encouraged and supported Verdi from the start. Small wonder that the subject matter of unmarried love and parental disapproval resonated strongly with the composer.
Verdi and Strepponi returned to Paris in time to see the premier of the play Dumas had written to capitalize on the popularity of the novel. It was now February, 1852, the play having been delayed for a couple of years while the censors grappled with the subject matter.
Dumas fils’ story was based on the real life courtesan Marie (Alphonsine) Duplessis, and tells of the love between Marguerite Gautier, (Violetta Valéry in the opera) and Armand Duval, (Alfredo Germont in the opera.) It is a love thwarted by the circumstances of the woman’s illness of consumption (tuberculosis) and by the intercession of her lover’s father, (Monsieur Duval in the novel, Giorgio Germont, in the opera.)
There are numerous differences between the Dumas character and that realized by Piave and Verdi, but as we will see, there is much juice to be extracted beyond the libretto, not only form Monsieur Duval in the novel, but from the larger than life novelist-father of Dumas, and from Verdi’s father-in-law, Barezzi.
The greatest adherence must, of course, be to the character as it exists in the opera, but with some of Germont’s actions in the opera being a bit device-y, i.e. serving the plot more than an integrated sense of character, it might help to look at some of these more fully drawn, or real-life personages. The rule of thumb holds, if it enriches your performance, use it.
A note on names and spelling: I’ll do my best to keep it straight, but let’s remember, Marguerite=Violetta, Armand=Alfredo, Duval=Germond.
Dumas misspelled the word camellia in his title, using only one “l” and if spellcheck will permit it, I will do the same.
Also, that Dumas based the novel on his own relationship with Marie Duplessis is not disputed. He even gave his character his own initials, A.D., which we may take as further permission to borrow from real life events involving Dumas, who was himself the “illegitimate” son of one of his father’s mistresses.
Lastly, Dumas prefaces his own play inviting the reader to “believe that this story is true.”
Age: We are not given a number for Germont (nor for Duval in the novel or play) but we may surmise he is a mature gentleman, a man of the old guard who embraces his seniority. We are probably talking fifty plus, and this is not a “fifty is the new forty” situation. Germont is a counterpoint to the feverishness of youth embodied by Violetta and Alfredo. He is a staunch man of society, bent on maintaining the family’s standing to secure the future marriage of his daughter, our young lover’s sister. As Dumas has him state in the novel, Germont/Duval understands, “that besides love there are duties; that to the age of passion succeeds the age when man, if he is to be respected, must plant himself solidly in a serious position.”
Intellect: Germont takes a while to discern that Violetta is ill. And despite his elderly, staid qualities, which imply that he has thought things through, he comes to regret his actions deeply. Is it his single-mindedness or insensitivity that causes this lapse, in which he does not well comprehend the likely outcome of his actions? Or is he perhaps not particularly sharp? No, he is a man of some standing who seems to have negotiated the world with success. We cannot assume him to be a buffoon. Maybe it is simply a generational matter. This play is of its time, embodying a passion that was propelling the French drama to match its literary counterparts (Zola for example) towards the more vivid, realistic theater that would blossom into verismo later in the century. Perhaps Germont does not completely understand because he does not want to understand, the current madness overtaking the world. Then, when he finally does understand, it is too late, so it heightens the drama to have him slow on the uptake for one reason or another.
Social class: upper class and determined to remain so.
The difference in their financial situations must be understood to explain some of the tension between father and son. The father has made his fortune, the son has not. The father may oppose young Armand having a mistress, but other older men in the play, i.e. the old man to whom Violetta runs when she leaves Alfredo, may keep mistresses as they wish. It is to a degree less a matter of morality and more a matter of what one can afford. But as we will see, Germont disapproves of such alliances on the whole, so even for his standing, he is conservative.
Certainly these issues were paramount for the young Dumas, who as far as we know without parental interference, broke off his relationship with Marie Duplessis for largely financial reasons. Also, despite his father’s acclaim as author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Muskateers, and numerous important journals and literary works of the day, Alexandre Dumas père was quite radical at times and often in financial difficulty. He had many mistresses, including young Dumas’s mother. So perhaps Germont is the more square, reliable dad Dumas never knew.
As mentioned in the Musetta character study, to study characters accurately, and play them convincingly, it doesn’t help to impose our own, contemporary images and judgments, whatever they may be. But we need a heavy here, someone to break apart our lovers, and Germont plays that role. However to play him as a stock bad guy is not justified by all the kindness and regret the character shows later on. And in this aria in particular, to bark this out without sympathy, or with self-indulgence of feeling is to demonstrate short term memory loss of the beautiful scene between Germont and Violetta that came just moments before. Why not choose to believe that Germont is doing what he truly believes is best for his family, and even perhaps kindest for Violetta in the long run? In the novel, the young Armand is not at all capable of supporting Marie, and it is this financial reality as much as anything that splits them apart, as it did for Dumas and Duplessis. Perhaps Germont truly only wants to protect his children (both daughter and son) from ruin, in fact, that is the first thing he says to Violetta, saying that his son “che a ruina corre, ammaliato da voi.” Who runs to ruin, bewitched by you.
If Germont does have a moment of toughness, it’s at this, the beginning of scene with Violetta, or later when he denounces Alfredo for his cruelty. To play this aria mis-applying the toughness we see elsewhere in the opera does not convey the aria’s true beauty. Whenever possible in an audition setting, you want to convey that you not only sing the aria well, but understand its significance and interpretation in the context of the whole. So don’t make him a jerk here. Not because he’s not a jerk, but because he’s not a jerk in this moment. But there must be a backbone. He must be a man of whom the following scene from the novel can be believed.
This is an excerpt from the scene before the old man has gone to persuade Marie, in which he tries to get his son to see reason. Note the reference to another operatic story, that of Manon.
"A father is always authorized to rescue his son out of evil paths. You have not done any harm yet, but you will do it."
"Sir, I know more of life than you do. There are no entirely pure sentiments except in perfectly chaste women. Every Manon can have her own Des Grieux, and times are changed. It would be useless for the world to grow older if it did not correct its ways. You will leave your mistress."
"I am very sorry to disobey you, father, but it is impossible."
"I will compel you to do so."
How does Armand/Alfredo feel about his father?
We can assume that he not only feels customary filial devotion, but loves him deeply. In the novel, when he is heartbroken over Marie’s departure, it is to his father young Armand runs.
“I was not strong enough to endure the blow alone. Then I remembered that my father was in the same city, that I might be with him in ten minutes, and that, whatever might be the cause of my sorrow, he would share it.
I ran like a madman, like a thief, to the Hotel de Paris; I found the key in the door of my father's room; I entered. He was reading. He showed so little astonishment at seeing me, that it was as if he was expecting me. I flung myself into his arms without saying a word. I gave him Marguerite's letter, and, falling on my knees beside his bed, I wept hot tears.”
Physical Characteristics: There are some generalities one should consider when playing an older character, as this is often an audition aria for baritones of all ages, it’s worth considering that it’s not a cliché that older people tend to move more slowly. Joints are less nimble so they (we?) well may refrain from crossing our legs or arms. The posture may imply that one is carrying a bit more weight than one used to. Specific characteristics of a person’s temperament become more pronounced over time. If our Germond has always been a look before you leap type, he may be even more staid. I’d guess that he moves slowly. He is deliberate in all of his gestures. Also, a person’s position in society affects the way he moves. People in charge tend not to overdo their gestures, unless they enjoy it. They don’t have to wave their arms or make a lot of noise. People listen to them and do what they say based upon their inherent authority. Think Brando: never go against the family.
We can see in the novel that the father exerts quite a force on his son by doing very little. Note the following sentence:
“My father was seated in my room in his dressing-gown; he was writing, and I saw at once, by the way in which he raised his eyes to me when I came in, that there was going to be a serious discussion.”
So, less is more.
Temperament: As mentioned, stolid. Even-keeled.
Germont’s Objective: The obvious answer is that he wants to maintain position of family by preventing any scandal and thereby hinders his daughter’s ability to marry well. But in choosing an objective you want to be sure to pick something strong, and something that explains every last action that the character takes. If Germont’s super-objective (what he wants most of all) were stability of position, would he denounce his son at the party? Maybe, if his son’s behavior were out of line. But he would not grieve for Violetta. He would not take her to his heart like a daughter. A better explanation of his motives, then, is that his deepest wish is for his family to be happy, and that at the beginning of the opera, when he makes the decision to convince the lovers to part, he believes that separating them will bring the greatest happiness for his family.
But that belief changes over the course of the opera, and gives us…
Germont’s Arc: If a major character appears the same at the end of the opera as at the beginning, we haven’t done our jobs as singers. Germont is very aggressive and single-minded at the beginning of the scene with Violetta. He brings out the big guns of guilt, singing his beautiful arietta, Pura siccome un angelo, of his daughter, whose marriage he hopes to secure at the expense of Violetta’s happiness. And Violetta agrees, almost immediately, to leave Alfredo for a time, but Germont insists this is not enough. Only then, when Violetta has ceded completely to his wish, does she confess her illness, (che morrà!)
And in that moment, Germont sees: “I see now that the sacrifice I asked could not be greater.” And the scene ends in mutual well-wishing. It is worth noting, in an age that is not particularly into self-sacrifice, that Violetta truly wishes the old man well, even though he is the man who has been the architect of her present unhappiness, she wishes him well. That nobility further endears her to Germont.
Next, Germont is confronted by his own son’s unhappiness as a result of Violetta’s departure. Oh, quanto soffri! Oh! How you are suffering! And it is his awareness of this suffering that triggers this aria.
Germont realizes he has sacrificed his son’s security, that security to be had from love.
Later, Alfredo is undone, beside himself at the party scene, and Germont denounces him. But in the end, seeing Violetta’s demise and seeing his son’s misery at having abandoning her, breaks Germont’s heart as well.
Indeed he starts out trying to save a daughter, and ends up losing one.
Pitfalls: What you don’t want to do is follow in the footsteps of the baritone who originated the role, Felice Varesi, who either didn’t like the role, or didn’t get it. The man who premiered the title roles of Macbeth and Rigoletto in recent years was a big star, and could not get excited about Germont. His performance at the premier of La traviata in Venice in 1853 has been called apathetic, lackadaisical. He might not have been the singular cause, but opening night was a fiasco, by Verdi’s own account. And Varesi didn’t help. To avoid his fate on that occasion, consider avoiding the following: The insensitive boor problem. The too slow problem. The barking orders problem. The self-pity party problem.
The scene: This is not difficult to understand or empathize with. Think of your own parents, or a good friend. Some well-intentioned person who tells you to get on with it, or to let go when you’re not ready. They mean well. But still, it doesn’t land well.
And there’s a saying: a parent is never happier than their unhappiest child. In a nutshell, Germont cares, deeply. Any other choice saps the role of pathos.
There may also be some ego involved with a guy like Germont. Admitting mistakes might be hard for him, unfamiliar territory. This raises the stakes on needing to cheer Alfredo up as well, but should be a secondary motivation if you want him to be likeable.
His role as foil: Germont is a bit of a hodge podge character, with his development somewhat erratic, more reactive than directed, but we need to make it work. So let’s say he’s got a heart of gold after all, and barges in bravely to take control of a bad situation, and then does all he can and then some to make up for his mistakes.
A few musical thoughts: Why does Verdi use an acciaccatura in this melody?
Is it meant to impart a catch in Germont’s throat, for having creating his son’s misery?
Is it the slight hesitation of a man unaccustomed to expressing strong feeling?
Is it a sob for poor Violetta?
If so, is it a sob of pity? Regret? Both?
I don’t know, but it must mean something. Verdi takes a bite out of the note, and it must cost Germont something emotionally to sing it, just as it must cost him something to open up to his son in this way.
A strophic piece always presents challenges. How will you make each verse a new, unique experience? Musically we may go back to the start, da capo, but dramtically, we must progress.
Point three, don’t yell at God. The prayer at the end of this aria is to me the hallmark of the humility and caring of Germont’s character. I realize that one higher note must take quite a bit of energy, but what is this moment really there for? Isn’t it the moving picture of Violetta’s sacrifice, the growing sense of consequence for his own actions in the form of his son’s profound unhappiness, perhaps also his own frailty and old age impending, isn’t it these things that move him to reverence and unearth his devotion? So pray, don’t shout.
What’s too slow? A remark made by conductor John Mauceri regarding sticking to Verdi’s tempo markings in Aida is as follows: “Verdi built his operas—structured them—in terms of tempo relationships, the way Wagner uses melodic figures. Verdi uses tempo to bring you back to a certain scene and mood.”
Mauceri goes on to explain in the same interview that within one work, the metronome markings may be the same but the tempo “is described differently—andante, allegro, and so on. The pulse is the same, but the feeling is different.”
The marking for this aria is “andante piuttosto mosso.” That word, “piuttosto” means “rather” and would seem to cover a multitude of sins. And you’ll have no trouble finding enormously popular baritones of today recording it at markedly slower tempi than Verdi’s marking, which is a quarter note equals 60 bpm. But if you keep in mind that the intention is to comfort Alfredo, not to wallow in your own misery, you’ll have an easier time sticking with Verdi’s marking. And if you listen to some of the great versions, both old and new, you might be surprised at how attenuated and emotional the aria can be while still staying within the bounds of the tempo.
Conclusion: Marie Duplessis was a woman of substance, and mystery. She had something. Liszt fell for her, alongside Dumas and many of the great men of the day. The enigma of her allure has lasted through the centuries. By all reports, to be in her presence changed people, men especially. There is no reason to think Germont immune to Violetta’s charms, and much to indicate he is deeply moved by her. Altered even. Perhaps this aria represents a tenderness he has manifested because of this contact.
Beyond the individual change in Germont/Duval, if Violetta/Marguerite is the new guard and he is the old, his conversion, his acceptance of her into his favor, embracing her as he does at the end of the opera, perhaps all of this represents a meta-shift in the consciousness of the century. It is the old heart opening anew to love.
It is hope, and transformation, as a direct result of empathy. No wonder people love this aria.
Resources for Further Study:
Well, look at the Principessa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Now there’s a heavy. She shares many situational characteristics with Germont, visiting pain upon one family member to protect the future happiness of another in marriage. But her character, as written, bears none of Germont’s recognition of the suffering she causes. We have a snapshot of her in a moment of cruelty. Germont, by comparison, is the complete story of a man grown larger of heart. Check out the Principessa and realize, Germont is not her.
Certainly read chapters twenty and twenty-one of the novel. Available online (with many great works) at Project Gutenberg.
Photos of elder gentlemen of the era convey a lot. Stature. Self-assurance. A degree of pomposity or foppishness, depending on the man.
Many photos exist of Alexandre Dumas père. And a photo of Barezzi evokes the aura of a successful man of the era. One can easily imagine Verdi had the wealthy wine merchant in his mind’s eye as he composed. Note the finely tailored suit, the big stomach from expensive dinners and liqueurs, the slight flamboyance of the hair.
A great physical role model would be later pictures of author Victor Hugo. And if you visit the website for the museum memorializing his life and work, you will see many photos of lavish French rooms, all of which convey and intimacy and wealth that would have surrounded Germont, and to which Violetta was accustomed as well. The museum is called Maisons Victor Hugo, and for pictures of the Paris apartment, visit the page for Place des Vosges.