Ten years later, Catriona is not a singer, as she dreamed, but a single mother and a music therapist. She is quite happy living her quiet life in Nice, France, until she receives a visit from a world-renowned opera diva. Calandra Rolando Monteverdi is Umberto’s mother, and she is desperate: her son has lost his sight in an accident, and his will to compose. After a great deal of soul-searching – after all, she and Umberto have a history – Catriona agrees to travel to the Monteverdi villa on Lake Como, Italy, to help Umberto.
There, Catriona steps into a world as dramatic and atmospheric as any opera. Even the house itself is straight out of an opera set. I write:
The dining area was sober, taking its inspiration from the Paris salon of the famous courtesan Violetta Valéry from La Traviata. Up the staircase, a sliding door led to the second bedroom, where low screens and tables helped to bring to life the Japanese garden in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. As for what was evidently Calandra’s study, it had the flamboyant red and gold colours of Madam Butterfly, with more paintings, each representing an act of the dramatic opera.
The three operas referenced here are my all-time favourites. Here is a little look at each one.
La Traviata is Italian for The Fallen Woman. The opera is based on La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady with the Camellias), a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils; Giuseppe Verdi saw a stage adaptation in Paris and was inspired to compose La Traviata. The opera premiered in Venice in March 1853 to a decidedly cool reception. In fact, Verdi wrote to a friend: ‘La Traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers’? Time will tell.’ Time did indeed tell: fast-forward to the 2018/19 season, and La Traviata was the most performed opera worldwide.
La Traviata is a love story that centres on a courtesan, Violetta Valéry, and a gentleman, Alfredo Germont. Their love is deep and pure, unlike anything either has experienced before, but it is thwarted by their very different backgrounds. Their relationship is an embarrassment to Alfredo’s upper-class family, and Alfredo’s father manages to convince Violetta to leave Alfredo for his own good. Misunderstandings and dramas ensue, building to a final reunion between the lovers, but a tragic one, for Violetta dies of consumption.
Here is an iconic song from the opera, a duet between Violetta and Alfredo after they first meet called ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ (‘Let’s drink from the joyful cups’), commonly known as the ‘Drinking Song’.
Giacomo Puccini was also inspired by a trip to the theatre, when he saw Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan in London in 1900. It took Puccini five attempts to get the opera right, and the early versions, performed between 1904 and 1907, weren’t too well received. His final revisions made all the difference, though, and now the opera is beloved the world over.
Madam Butterfly is set in Japan at the turn of the 20th century and it’s a story of love – and heartbreak. A 15-year-old geisha named Butterfly (Ciocio-san) catches the eye of American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, and he decides he’ll take her as a bride. They marry, and romance blooms.
Three years after their wedding, however, a love-struck Butterfly is still waiting for Pinkerton to return. In the intervening years, she has had his son. Finally, Pinkerton comes back – with a new American wife on his arm with whom he wants to raise the son. When he sees Butterfly and the way she has decorated their home for him, Pinkerton’s emotions are thrown into turmoil, but he is unable to face his own truth and is ultimately too late to save Butterfly, who, knowing she has lost both Pinkerton and her son, takes her own life.
Here is the love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly from the end of Act 1, performed at the Royal Opera House, London.
Carmen was composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet back in the 1870s, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. Like La Traviata, it was not initially well received; the immorality and murder and sensuality were controversial for a stage show at the time, and Bizet did not live to see it be acclaimed. Only once it began to find audiences outside of Paris, where it was debuted, did the opera build a reputation, so that by the early 1900s people all over Europe were humming the ‘Toreador Song’.
The story is set in Seville and tells of a soldier, Don José, who falls in love with a gypsy, Carmen. She is so seductive that José leaves his sweetheart and deserts the army in order to be with her – only for Carmen to scorn him and declare her love for a toreador, Escamillo. In a jealous rage, as Escamillo conquers the arena, Don José stabs Carmen: one of the most powerful theatrical death scenes of all time.
Here is Carmen is full seductive flow, singing her habanera on how love is untameable.