Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > La Traviata (Verdi) - Synopsis
La Traviata -
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Opera in three acts by Verdi; words by Francesco Maria Piave, after the play "La Dame aux Camelias," by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Produced Fenice Theatre, Venice, March 6, 1853. London, May 24, 1856, with Piccolomini. Paris, in French, December 6, 1856; in Italian, October 27, 1864, with Christine Nilsson. New York, Academy of Music, December 3, 1856, with La Grange (Violetta), Brignoli (Alfredo), and Amodio (Germont père). Nilsson, Patti, Melba, Sembrich and Tetrazzini have been among famous interpreters of the rôle of Violetta in America. Galli-Curci first sang Violetta in this country in Chicago, December 1, 1916.
ALFREDO GERMONT, lover of VIOLETTA
GIORGIO GERMONT, his father
GASTONE DE LETORIERES
BARON DAUPHOL, a rival of ALFREDO
GIUSEPPE, servant to VIOLETTA
VIOLETTA VALERY, a courtesan
FLORA BERVOIX, her friend
ANNINA, confidante of VIOLETTA
Ladies and gentlemen who are friends and guests in the houses of Violetta and Flora; servants and masks; dancers and guests as matadors, picadors, and gypsies.
Time: Louis XVI.
Place: Paris and vicinity.
Bianca Bianchi in the role of Violetta Valery in Verdi's opera, La Traviata, in a production at the Wiener Hofoper, Vienna, Austria.
Photo: Rudolf Krziwanek.
At its production in Venice in 1853 "La Traviata" was a failure, for which various reasons can be advanced. The younger Dumass play, "La Dame aux Camelias, " familiar to English playgoers under the incorrect title of "Camille," is a study of modern life and played in modern costume. When Piave reduced his "Traviata" libretto from the play, he retained the modern period. This is said to have non-plussed an audience accustomed to operas laid in the past and given in "costume." But the chief blame for the fiasco appears to have rested with the singers. Graziani, the Alfredo, was hoarse. Salvini-Domatelli, the Violetta, was inordinately stout. The result was that the scene of her death as a consumptive was received with derision. Varesi, the baritone, who sang Giorgio Germont, who does not appear until the second act, and is of no importance save in that part of the opera, considered the role beneath his reputation -- notwithstanding Germonts beautiful solo, "Di Provenza" -- and was none too cheerful over it. There is evidence in Verdis correspondence that the composer had complete confidence in the merits of his score, and attributed its failure to its interpreters.
When the opera was brought forward again a year later, the same city which had decried it as a failure acclaimed it a success. On this occasion, however, the period of the action different from that of the play. It was set back to the time of Louis XIV, and costumed accordingly. There is, however, no other opera today in which this matter of costume is so much a go-as-you-please affair for the principals, as it is in "La Traviata." I do not recall if Christine Nilsson dressed Violetta according to the Louis XIV period, or not; but certainly Adelina Patti and Marcella Sembrich, both of whom I heard many times in the role (and each of them the first time they sang it here) wore the conventional evening gown of modern times. To do this has become entirely permissible for prima donnas in this character. Meanwhile the Alfredo may dress according to the Louis XIV period, or wear the swallow-tail costume of today, or compromise, as some do, and wear the swallow-tail coat and modern waist-coast with knee-breeches and black silk stockings. As if even this diversity were not yet quite enough, the most notable Germont of recent years, Renaud, who, at the Manhattan Opera House, sang the role with the most exquisite refinement, giving a portrayal as finished as a genre painting by Meissonier, wore the costume of a gentleman of Provence of, perhaps, the middle of the last century. But, as I have hinted before, in old-fashioned opera, these incongruities, which would be severely condemned in a modern work, dont amount to a row of pins. Given plenty of melody, beautifully sung, and everything else can go hang.
Act I. A salon in the house of Violetta. In the back scene is a door, which opens into another salon. There are also side doors. On the left is a fireplace, over which is a mirror. In the center of the apartment is a dining-table, elegantly laid. Violetta, seated on a couch, is conversing with Dr. Grenvil and some friends. Others are receiving the guests who arrive, among whom are Baron Dauphol and Flora on the arm of the Marquis.
The opera opens with a brisk ensemble. Violetta is a courtesan (traviata). Her house is the scene of a revel. Early in the festivities Gaston, who has come in with Alfred, informs Violetta that his friend is seriously in love with her. She treats the matter with outward levity, but it is apparent that she is touched by Alfreds devotion. Already, too, in this scene, there are slight indications, more emphasized as the opera progresses, that consumption has undermined Violettas health.
First in the order of solos in this act is a spirited drinking song for Alfred, which is repeated by Violetta. After each measure the chorus joins in. This is the "Libiamo neliete calici" (Let us quaff from the wine-cup oerflowing).
Music is heard from an adjoining salon, toward which the guests proceed. Violetta is about to follow, but is seized with a coughing-spell and sinks upon a lounge to recover. Alfred has remained behind. She asks him why he has not joined the others. He protests his love for her. At first taking his words in banter, she becomes more serious, as she begins to realize the depth of his affection for her. How long has he loved her? A year, he answers. "Un di felice eterea" (One day a rapture ethereal), he sings.
On this the words, "Di quell amor che palpito" (Ah, tis with love that palpitates) are set to a phrase which Violetta repeats in the famous "Ah, fors elui," just as she has previously repeated the drinking song.
Verdi thus seems to intend to indicate in his score the effect upon her of Alfreds genuine affection. She repeated his drinking song. Now she repeats, like an echo of heartbeats, his tribute to a love of which she is the object.
It is when Alfred and the other guests have retired that Violetta, lost in contemplation, her heart touched for the first time, sings "Ah fors è lui che lanima" (For him, perchance, my longing soul).
Then she repeats, in the nature of a refrain, the measures already sung by Alfred. Suddenly she changes, as if there were no hope of lasting love for woman of her character, and dashes into the brilliant "Sempre libera degg io folleggiare di gioja in gioja" (Ever free shall I still hasten madly on from pleasure to pleasure).
With this solo the act closes.
Act II. Salon on the ground floor of a country house near Paris, occupied by Alfred and Violetta, who for him has deserted the allurements of her former life. Alfred enters in sporting costume. He sings of his joy in possessing Violetta: "Di miei bollenti spiriti" (Wild my dream of ecstasy).
From Annina, the maid of Violetta, he learns that the expenses of keeping up the country house are much greater than Violetta has told him, and that, in order to meet the cost, which is beyond his own means, she has been selling her jewels. He immediately leaves for Paris, his intention being to try to raise money there so that he may be able to reimburse her.
After he has gone, Violetta comes in. She has a note from Flora inviting her to some festivities at her house that night. She smiles at the absurdity of the idea that she should return, even for an evening, to the scenes of her former life. Just then a visitor is announced. She supposes he is a business agent, whom she is expecting. But, instead the man who enters announces that he is Alfreds father. His dignity, his courteous yet restrained manner, at once fill her with apprehension. She has foreseen separation from the man she loves. She now senses that the dread moment is impending.
The elder Germonts plea that she leave Alfred is based both upon the blight threatened his career by his liaison with her, and upon another misfortune that will result to the family. There is not only the son; there is a daughter. "Pura siccome un angelo" (Pure as an angel) sings Germont, in the familiar air:
Should the scandal of Alfreds liaison with Violetta continue, the family of a youth, whom the daughter is to marry, threaten to break off the alliance. Therefore it is not only on behalf of his son, it is also for the future of his daughter, that the elder Germont pleads. As in the play, so in the opera, the reason why the rôle of the heroine so strongly appeals to us is that she makes the sacrifice demanded of her -- though she is aware that among other unhappy consequences to her, it will aggravate the disease of which she is a victim and hasten her death, wherein, indeed, she even sees a solace. She cannot yield at once. She prays, as it were, for mercy: "Non sapete" (Ah, you know not).
Finally she yields: "Dite alla giovine" (Say to thy daughter); then "Imponete" (Now command me); and, after that, "Morro -- la mia memoria" (I shall die -- but may my memory).
Germont retires. Violetta writes a note, rings for Annina, and hands it to her. From the maids surprise as she reads the address, it can be judged to be for Flora, and, presumably, an acceptance of her invitation. When Annina has gone, she writes to Alfred informing him that she is returning to her old life, and that she will look to Baron Dauphol to maintain her. Alfred enters. She conceals the letter about her person. He tells her that he has received word from his father that the latter is coming to see him in an attempt to separate him from her. Pretending that she leaves, so as not to be present during the interview, she takes of him a tearful farewell.
Alfred is left alone. He picks up a book and reads listlessly. A messenger enters and hands him a note. The address is in Violettas handwriting. He breaks the seal, begins to read, staggers as he realizes the import, and would collapse, but that his father, who has quietly entered from the garden, holds out his arms, in which the youth, believing himself betrayed by the woman he loves, finds refuge.
"Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal corti cancello" (From fair Provences sea and soil, who hath won thy heart away), sings the elder Germont, in an effort to soften the blow that has fallen upon his son.
Alfred rouses himself. Looking about vaguely, he sees Floras letter, glances at the contents, and at once concludes that Violettas first plunge into the vortex of gayety, to return to which she has, as he supposes, abandoned him, will be at Floras fête.
"Thither will I hasten, and avenge myself!" he exclaims, and departs precipitately, followed by his father.
The scene changes to a richly furnished and brilliantly lighted salon in Floras palace. The fete is in full swing. There is a ballet of women gypsies, who sing as they dance "Noi siamo zingarelli" (Were gypsies gay and youthful).
Gaston and his friends appear as matadors and others as picadors. Gaston sings, while the others dance, "E Piquillo, un bel gagliardo" (Twas Piquillo, so young and so daring).
It is a lively scene, upon which there enters Alfred, to be followed soon by Baron Dauphol with Violetta on his arm. Alfred is seated at a card table. He is steadily winning. "Unlucky in love, lucky in gambling!" he exclaims. Violetta winces. The Baron shows evidence of anger at Alfreds words and is with difficulty restrained by Violetta. The Baron, with assumed nonchalance, goes to the gaming table and stakes against Alfred. Again the latters winnings are large. A servants announcement that the banquet is ready is an evident relief to the Baron. All retire to an adjoining salon. For a brief moment the stage is empty.
Violetta enters. She has asked for an interview with Alfred. He joins her. She begs him to leave. She fears the Barons anger will lead him to challenge Alfred to a duel. The latter sneers at her apprehensions; intimates that it is the Baron she fears for. Is it not the Baron Dauphol for whom he, Alfred, has been cast off by her? Violettas emotions almost betray her, but she remembers her promise to the elder Germont, and exclaims that she loves the Baron.
Alfred tears open the doors to the salon where the banquet is in progress. "Come hither, all!" he shouts.
They crowd upon the scene. Violetta, almost fainting, leans against the table for support. Facing her, Alfred hurls at her invective after invective. Finally, in payment of what she has spent to help him maintain the house near Paris in which they have lived together, he furiously casts at her feet all his winnings at the gaming table. She faints in the arms of Flora and Dr. Grenvil.
The elder Germont enters in search of his son. He alone knows the real significance of the scene, but for the sake of his son and daughter cannot disclose it. A dramatic ensemble, in which Violetta sings, "Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto lamore" (Alfred, Alfred, little canst thou fathom the love within my heart for thee) brings the act to a close.
Act III. Violettas bedroom. At the back is a bed with the curtains partly drawn. A window is shut in by inside shutters. Near the bed stands a tabouret with a bottle of water, a crystal cup, and different kinds of medicine on it. In the middle of the room us a toilet-table and settee. A little apart from this is another piece of furniture upon which a night-lamp is burning. On the left is a fireplace with a fire in it.
Violetta awakens. In a weak voice she calls Annina, who, waking up confusedly, opens the shutters and looks down into the street, which is gay with carnival preparations. Dr. Grenvil is at the door. Violetta endeavours to rise, but falls back again. Then, supported by Annina, she walks slowly toward the settee. The doctor enters in time to assist her. Annina places cushions about her. To Violetta the physician cheerfully holds out hope of recovery, but to Annina he whispers, as he is leaving, that her mistress has but few hours more to live.
Violetta has received a letter from the elder Germont telling her that Alfred has been apprised by him of her sacrifice and has been sent for to come to her bedside as quickly as possible. But she has little hope that he will arrive in time. She senses the near approach of death. "Addio del passato" (Farewell to bright visions) she sighs. For this solo,
when sung in the correct interpretive mood, should be like a sigh from the depths of a once frail, but not purified soul.
A bacchanalian chorus of carnival revelers floats up from the street. Annina, who had gone out with some money which Violetta had given her to distribute as alms, returns. Her manner is excited. Violetta is quick to perceive it and divine its significance. Annina has seen Alfred. He is waiting to be announced. The dying woman bids Annina hasten to admit him. A moment later he holds Violetta in his arms. Approaching death is forgotten. Nothing again shall part them. They will leave Paris for some quiet retreat. "Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo" (We shall fly from Paris, beloved), they sing.
But it is too late. The hand of death is upon the womans brow. "Gran Dio! morir si giovane" (O, God! to die so young).
The elder Germont and Dr. Grenvil have come in. There is nothing to be done. The cough that racked the poor frail body has ceased. La traviata is dead.
Not only were "Il Trovatore" and "La Traviata" produced in the same year, but "La Traviata" was written between the date of "Trovatores" premiere at Rome (January 19th) and March 6th. Only four weeks in all are said to have been devoted to it, and part of the time Verdi was working on "Trovatore" as well. Nothing could better illustrate the fecundity of his genius, the facility with which he composed. But it was not the fatal facility that sacrifices real merit for temporary success. There are a few echoes of "Trovatore" in "Traviata"; but the remarkable achievement of Verdi is not in having written so beautiful an opera as "La Traviata" in so short a time, but in having produced in it a work in a style wholly different from "Il Trovatore." The latter palpitates with the passions of love, hatred, and vengeance. The setting of the action encourages these. It consists of palace gardens, castles, dungeons. But "La Traviata" plays in drawing-rooms. The music corresponds with these surroundings. It is vivacious, graceful, gentle. When it palpitates, it is with sorrow. The opera also contains a notably beautiful instrumental number -- the introduction to the third act. This was a favourite piece with Theodore Thomas. Several times -- years ago -- I heard it conducted by him at his Popular Concerts.
Oddly enough, although "Il Trovatore" is by far the more robust and at one time was, as I have stated, the most popular opera in the world, I believe that today the advantage lies with "La Traviata," and that, as between the two, there belongs to that opera the ultimate chance of survival. I explain this on the ground that, in "Il Trovatore" the hero and heroine are purely musical creations, the real character drawing, dramatically and musically, being in the role of Azucena, which, while a principal role, has not the prominence of Leonora or Manrico. In "La Traviata," on the other hand, we have in the original of Violetta -- the Marguerite Gauthier of Alexandre Dumas, fils -- one of the great creations of modern drama, the frail woman redeemed by the touch of an artist. Piave, in his libretto, preserves the character. In the opera, as in the play, one comprehends the injunction, "Let him who is not guilty throw the first stone." For Verdi has clothed Violetta in music that brings out the character so vividly and so beautifully that whenever I see "Traviata" I recall the first performance in America of the Dumas play by Bernhardt, then in her slender and supple prime, and the first American appearance in it of Duse, with her exquisite intonation and restraint of gesture.
In fact, operas survive because the librettist has known how to create a character and the composer how to match it with his musical genius. Recall the dashing Don Giovanni; the resourceful Figaro, both in the Mozart and the Rossini opera; the real interpretive quality of a mild and gracious order in the heroine of "La Sonnambula" -- innocence personified; the gloomy figure of Edgardo stalking through "Lucia di Lammermoor"; the hunchback and the titled gallant in "Rigoletto," and you can understand why these very old operas have lived so long. They are not make believe; they are real.