La Traviata OPERA COMMENTARY
In his 19th opera, La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi invites audiences to consider that a noble heart is much more important than a spotless reputation. The story is set in 19th-century Paris' "demi-monde," a social world just outside of respectable society, where courtesans presided with their parties and gambling and available sexuality.
The story came from a play, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), written by Alexandre Dumas, the son of the Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and other 19th-century thrillers. The 1852 play was based on Dumas’ own 1848 novel of the same name, which had, in turn, been based on his own personal experiences with a famous Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis. They had had a one-year love affair when they were both 20, and Dumas had then abandoned her. He returned to Paris three years later, just after Marie’s death from tuberculosis.
Dumas’ detailed descriptions in novel and drama of the “demi-monde” created a scandal; people in upright society knew that this world existed but tried to ignore it. The scandal helped sell books, and, later, tickets to the play. Actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Lillian Gish soon vied to play the courtesan. Greta Garbo took on the role in the 1936 film Camille. Still later, Julia Roberts played a similar part in 1990’s Pretty Woman, which confesses its debt to this story when the film’s central characters attend a performance of La Traviata.
As a novel and as a play, the story shocked people and challenged them to see beyond superficial judgments. When Verdi was attracted to the tale when he saw the play in 1852; he immediately started thinking about music for it.
Verdi’s personal history with the cruelty with which social norms are often upheld probably played into his attraction to the story. In 1851, he had moved back to his hometown of Busseto with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano and singing teacher he had known since 1841 and with whom he had been living since at least 1847. The unmarried Strepponi, who had earlier also given birth to three children out of wedlock, suffered from the scorn of the Busseto villagers.
Verdi would have been drawn to the story anyway, though, because he was a compassionate man. In the story and music of opera after opera, he encouraged people to show compassion for others who don’t fit easily in society, like the hunchback Rigoletto, the title character in the opera immediately preceding La Traviata. Verdi practiced compassion outside the theatre too: in his later years, he built a hospital near his estate, and he founded and set up an endowment for Casa di Riposo, a home for impoverished retired musicians.
In addition to selecting the heartbreaking story of the Lady of the Camellias for this opera, Verdi attempted to shock his audience members into paying personal attention to his theme by presenting the opera in a contemporary setting and costumes. This just hadn’t been done before, and the censors in Venice, where the premiere would take place, claimed it would be both disappointing and uncomfortable for theatre-goers not to be transported to someplace grand and far away during their evening’s entertainment. So Verdi and Piave transposed the story’s action to the 1700s.
Modern productions, like Utah Opera’s current presentation, generally update to Verdi’s preferred decade, or later. Utah Opera’s production will be set in the early 20th century.
Another weapon in Verdi’s campaign to build empathy for a character scorned by higher society is the noble, gentle music he wrote for her. Verdi charts the development of Violetta’s character through the shifting styles of music she sings in each act, but he always maintains a running thread of her dignity. In Act I, when she claims to her future lover Alfredo that she lives for pleasure alone, her music is filled with skips and ornaments and light touches, but as she listens to the sincere devotion in his aria of love, she takes on his harmony. The melody of his invitation to a less light-hearted way of living haunts her until it is also hers, and she too accepts the burden and the delight of love (croce e delizia al cor).
Her character is put to the test in Act II, in a scene Dumas added when he transferred his story from novel to drama: Alfredo’s father requests that Violetta leave Alfredo for the sake of his family’s reputation, and he further asks her to lie to Alfredo about why she’s leaving so that he won’t follow her. It’s clear from the beginning of the scene that Violetta is a more considerate and dignified person than the “cultured” father, and even he is forced to acknowledge her noble spirit as he sees her develop the determination to sacrifice her own happiness for what she is convinced are the best interests of her beloved. Verdi gives her weighty, dramatic music to express her agony and strained devotion. Her outburst to Alfredo as she runs away from him at the end of the scene is a good example—it is she who finally gives words to the yearning melody introduced by the violins near the beginning of the Act I Prelude, “Amami, Alfredo, quant’ io t’amo.” [love me Alfredo, as I love you].
Verdi gives Violetta equally noble music in Act III, which takes place several months later, when her body has finally succumbed to the tuberculosis from which she has suffered throughout the story. This music is weaker, gentler still, and appropriate to her frail state. One of the most poignant moments in the opera occurs when she is alone on stage rereading a letter from Alfredo’s father in which the old man apologizes. She is so weak she can’t even sing but only speak the words, while a solo oboe playing beneath underlines her frailty, loneliness and hopeless condition.
In many ways, the story of La Traviata is difficult to relate to: not only is the opera usually set at least a century in the past, but in it a woman dies from tuberculosis, a disease most of us are surprised to learn still threatens humanity in the 21st century. Moreover, the woman is a courtesan of the “demi-monde,” an in-between social world Americans can hardly understand. But Verdi’s music takes us on an important human journey reminding us that a noble heart is the best trait for any human being at any time, in any place. A person who loves deeply, who can sacrifice her own desires for the good of others, is an admirable human being, no matter what “monde” she lives in.
Paula Fowler is Utah Symphony| Utah Opera’s
Director of Education and Community Outreach