Giuseppe Verdi: Libiamo ne’ lieti calici

Context

Composed between Il trovatore (1853) and Les vêpres siciliennes (1855), La Traviata was part of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘middle period’ of composition. Previous to La Traviata came 16 other operas including the ever-popular Nabucodonosor (1842) and Rigoletto (1851). Based at the start of the 19th century in Paris, La Traviata boasts one of Verdi’s most popular musical scores, storylines and scenery. 

La Traviata (‘The Fallen Woman’) tells the story of the tragic love between Violetta and Alfredo Germont. Highlighting the hypocrisy of upper-class society, their love threatens to shame Alfredo’s family. Violetta takes matters into her own hands which leads to her performing an act of self-sacrifice which leads her to paying the ultimate price for love. 

Betwixt the themes of tragic love, self-sacrifice and family politics comes the lavish party scenes that truly celebrate the lighter side of Verdi’s often intense compositional style. Opening the first act of La Traviata is a brindisi song, which is a type of drinking song. Brindisi songs have been used in operas for many years, with a character usually introducing a toast and the chorus join in to celebrate. 

Some famous examples of drinking songs are Si colmi il calice from Verdi’s Macbeth (1847), Il segreto per esser felici from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (1833) and Libiamo ne’ lieti calici from Verdi’s La Traviata. 

 

The Music

Celebrated as being one of the most, if not the most, iconic opera duets in the world, Verdi’s playful Libiamo ne’ lieti calici is a prime example of an operatic drinking song. Translated into ‘Let’s Drink from the Joyful Cups’ the duet is a lively song that strongly encourages the drinking of wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Performed in the first act of the opera during a late-night party at Violetta’s house, the duet is sung by the two leads – Violetta and Alfredo. The premise of the story starts from this song, with Alfredo starting this song because he is in love with Violetta. He is convinced by his friend Gastone that he should show off his voice to Violetta, so he begins the song and is later joined by both Violetta and the chorus. 

 

Francesco Maria Piave wrote the lyrics for this song, with the English translation reading:

 

Alfredo

Let’s drink from the joyous chalice

Where beauty flowers …

Let the fleeting hour

To pleasure’s intoxication yield.

Let’s drink

To love’s sweet tremors –

To those eyes

That pierce the heart.

Let’s drink to love – to wine

That warms our kisses.

All

Ah! Let’s drink to love ? to wine

That warms our kisses.

Violetta

With you I would share

My days of happiness;

Everything is folly in this world

That does not give us pleasure.

Let us enjoy life,

For the pleasures of love are swift and fleeting

As a flower that lives and dies

And can be enjoyed no more.

Let’s take our pleasure!

While its ardent,

Brilliant summons lures us on.

All 

Let’s take our pleasure

Of wine and

Singing and mirth

Till the new day

Dawns on us in paradise.

Violetta

to Alfredo

Life is just pleasure.

Alfredo

to Violetta

But if one still waits for love …

Violetta

to Alfredo

I know nothing of that ? don’t tell me …

Alfredo

to Violetta

But there lies my fate.

All

Let’s take our pleasure

Of wine and

Singing and mirth,

Till the new day

Dawns on this paradise of ours.

 

Performed in a bouncy waltz-like time signature, the relentless ‘oom-pah-pah’ accompaniment is one of the most prominent aspects of the song. The waltz style is representative of circular motions, which have often been accredited to the themes of life and death – themes that La Traviata is famous for. 

With more people joining in the song, the more chaotic it becomes. If taken for face value the song represents the jolly and frivolous party held by Violetta, however some of the undertones of this song highlights the potential loss of control, which Violetta experiences later in the opera. 

Opening with a lively theme Libiamo ne’ lieti calici is a true representation of party music. One must remember that Violetta is still ill at the point of throwing this party, but she’s gone ahead with her plans anyway and this is represented in her lines ‘Let us enjoy life, for the pleasures of love are swift and fleeting’. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the song is the short dialogue between Violetta and Alfredo which shows their opposite views on life and love. Verdi highlights their opposing views by not letting them sing in unison here, but as a call and response sequence. Violetta exclaims that ‘Life is only pleasure’ and that she has a loveless life. Alfredo responds that her fate is to wait for love as ‘such is my destiny’. 

The song begins to head towards its end by the music becoming faster like a whirlpool, which represents the guests becoming more intoxicated. The bold exclamations sung by the chorus at the end show their united front on drinking wine until dawn comes.

The excitement towards the end is supported by the accompaniment. The music moves in an upward motion to build tension until an explosion of sound at the end closes this iconic party song.

The instantly-recognisable vocal melody line shows off the two voice types effectively. The quick movement between and big leaps between the words shows the technical prowess of the song. Within the opera Alfredo wants to show off his vocal abilities to Violetta, and he is able to do so by exercising his range and control so the melody sings through above the classic waltz accompaniment. 

 

Final Thoughts

Often chosen as a stand-alone concert piece to celebrate great tenors and sopranos, Libiamo ne’ lieti calici is one of the most well-known opera songs of all time. Its infectious style and musicality makes it catchy and easy on the ear for most. Although representing some darker undertones, this song at face value is frivolous, celebratory and representative of many parties. 

Only one week to go before Opera on Location start their exciting run of La Traviata in Sheffield. Book your tickets soon to experience this unique form of opera!

 

Happy Reading!

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