About the Opera

For all the sumptuous beauty of Verdi’s music and the sentimentality and riveting tragedy of the story, there’s no getting around an essential fact about “La Traviata.” It’s about sex. Not just the magnetic attraction of the main characters, a standard of nearly every opera ever produced. But illicit sex. Illicit, at least, in the eyes of 19th century audiences and the overseers and arbiters of moral standards of the day.

Start with the title. “La traviata” translates roughly as “The Fallen Woman.” It’s a direct reference to the inspiration of the story, a 23-year-old woman named Marie Duplessis. She was, by all accounts, the most fashionable courtesan in Paris, beautiful and brilliant. Franz Liszt was among her many lovers as was the young Alexandre Dumas.

He wrote “La Dame aux camélias,” a thinly-veiled novel of their affair. The novel was the talk of the town for two reasons: its candid discussion of a relationship that was out of bounds in polite society but was fodder for the prurient interest of Parisian readers, and the lingering illness and death by tuberculosis of Mlle. Duplessis.

Dumas fils turned his best seller into a play. Verdi saw it on a visit to Paris in 1852. The operatic possibilities were obvious. Marie Duplessis = Violetta Valéry! Returning to Italy, he engaged Francisco Maria Piave, to write the libretto and began to compose, while at the same time readying “Il Trovatore” for a January, 1853 debut in Rome. (Verdi was a great multi-tasker.)

That Verdi, stubborn by nature, could personally identify with “illicit” love surely made the story even more attractive. After his first wife died, he fell in love with Giuseppina Strepponi, a renowned soprano. They lived together 12 years before marrying. Verdi’s former father-in-law objected to the relationship and Verdi shot back in a letter: “In my house there lives a lady, free and independent... Neither I nor she is obliged to account to anyone for our actions...” “La traviata’s” synopsis in a nutshell!

“La traviata” was scheduled to open at La Fenice, the great opera house in Venice, but management saw the story as far too racy. The sex angle, again. They told Verdi to sanitize it by using antiquated costumes that ratcheted the story back 150 years, to around 1700. Verdi was livid and called the debut “a fiasco.” It took 30 years before Verdi could outflank the censors and stage a contemporary production, his wish all along.

The opera itself opens at breakneck speed, with a rollicking party at Violetta’s home. She’s rebounded somewhat from her tuberculosis and the mood is jolly. There’s drinking and singing and geeky Alfredo confesses his ardor for this seemingly unapproachable courtesan. Violetta tops off the act with the show stopping “Sempre libera...”, a hymn to hedonism and a signature aria for coloratura sopranos, famously including Maria Callas, who sang the role 60 times. What more could an audience want?

But wait. The meat is in Act II when Germont, Alfredo’s father, confronts Violetta. “You’re a prostitute. You’re ruining my family’s reputation,” he says. “This is a scandal. You must end this relationship with my son.” Violetta, who has found genuine love at last, is devastated but gradually realizes that Germont is acting out of profound love for Alfredo, the man she loves. At the same time, Germont, who had initially scorned Violetta, comes to respect and understand this woman’s love for his only son. Violetta and Alfredo’s passion burns briefly in the finale and then is quashed. But the deeply moving dialog between Violetta and Germont, a woman and a father torn by their mutual love for a young man, is the genuine heart of this extraordinary opera.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson