Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > La Traviata (Verdi)
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
The story of this long-lived favorite is founded on the younger Dumas novel and play, "La Dame aux Camelias." As evolved in the text, it is easily told. It is a sort of drawing-room tragedy -- the somewhat sickly tale of love and death of Dumas Marguerite Gauthier, here called Violetta.
Maria Callas (1923-77) as Violetta in Verdi's opera, La Traviata. This was a publicity photo taken by photographer Houston Rogers.
ACT 1. -- Violetta is a reigning belle, in fact, a courtesan, but purely devoted to an honest lover. The Act opens at a reception in her house in Paris. Alfred Germont, whom she has recently met, is regarded by her with greater favour than other admirers, and they pledge their troth after the singing by Violetta of the famous scena, "Ah! fors e lui." Alfred makes himself conspicuous by trolling out a Bacchanalian song for the general amusement. In the midst of this jollity Violetta gives unmistakable signs of a pulmonary complaint, and Alfred, left alone with her, expresses serious uneasiness on her account. When Alfred has gone, Violetta drops into dejected reflection on her sad condition, and presently resolves to drown her cares in dissipation. Here the Act ends.
ACT 2. -- Three months have gone by. The scene is now at a country house near Paris, where Alfred and Violetta are spending a quiet period of love. One day Alfred learns from a chance remark of the maid that Violetta has arranged to sell her horses and carriages to provide for their needs. Stung by the thought that he is living at the expense of his mistress, he rushes off to Paris to prevent the sale. While he is absent, his old father calls, and, by representing to Violetta that his daughters matrimonial prospects are endangered by Violettas compromising connection with Alfred, induces Violetta to sacrifice her own feelings for the sake of Alfreds welfare. On Alfreds return, he receives a letter in which Violetta tells him she has left him for ever. The scene now shifts to the salon of another courtesan, Flora Bervoix. A masked ball is in progress. Alfred is there; and by-and-by Violetta enters on the arm of her present "protector," Baron Dauphol. She is naturally embarassed by the sight of Alfred. A game for high stakes, with Alfred and the Baron for antagonists, does not improve the situation. Mischief ensues. Violetta appeals to Alfred not to fight. The maddened youth calles the entire company, confesses his former relations with Violetta, and flings her portrait at her feet.
ACT 3. -- This Act opens in Violettas chamber, where Violetta is dying of consumption. A letter from the elder Germont informs her that Alfred has wounded the Baron, and will soon return to her. An affecting reconciliation follows between the lovers, when Alfred is stricken with remorse on learning from his father of Violettas self-abnegation. This throws a transient gleam of solace over the unhappiness of Violetta, who, surrounded by her lover, her faithful servant, her medical attendant, and Alfreds father, terminates the tale of sin with repentance.
Musically, "La Traviata" is not a noble specimen even of Italian opera. But its abundant melody, much of it really graceful and refined, and the genuine emotion of many of its strains, have saved it from oblivion which has overtaken other operas of its class and time. It is essentially a "singing opera" of the old florid school; and one cannot reasonably object to the verdict that it is "chiefly employed now as a means of allowing a popular prima donna to display her high notes and her diamonds." In his efforts to avoid vulgarity, Verdi occasionally falls into the slough of sentimentality. Nevertheless, the pathos of some of his scenes must be admitted as appealing, and that is mainly why the opera still keeps its place in popular favour. It is not musically great, but it is very humanly interesting.
Written almost concurrently with "Il Trovatore" (Verdi usually took about a month to an opera), "La Traviata" was produced in Venice on March 6, 1853. The first performance was a brilliant fiasco. Verdi wrote next day to one of his pupils: " La Traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers? Time will decide." The fault was not his. It was due to several causes. The tenor had a "violent hoarseness"; and the baritone, Varesi, purposely sang with indifference because he had been cast for a secondary part. At the close of the performance he sought to condole with Verdi. "Make your condolences," replied the composer drily, "to yourself and your companions, who have not understood my music."
But the real cause of the failure lay in another direction. Mme. Donatelli, a feeble actress, had been chosen to impersonate the heroine. Now, as an American writer observes, it is difficult to obtain an opera singer who looks near to death from consumption. But Donatelli was "afflicted with enormous stoutness," and so, when the doctor declared that consumption had wasted her and that she had but a few hours to live, the audience simply roared with merriment -- a state very different from that necessary to appreciate the tragic action of the last Act. But Verdi was justified in his confidence in the work. When a year had passed, it was brought out again, under quite different circumstances, at another theatre in Venice, when it obtained a marked success. Thereafter it soon made a triumphal tour of Italy and the whole of Europe.
Its production in London in 1856 was as successful as elsewhere, thanks in part to Mdlle. Piccolomini, the spoiled darling of the public about that time. As it turned out, the work needed a strong personality such as hers to combat the opposition of its enemies. Two days after its first performance, a long letter appeared in the Times expressing in indignant terms the astonishment of the writer that an opera of such immoral tendancy should have received stage licence. The letter was followed up by references from several London pulpits. Then appeared another letter, this time from the impresario of Her Majestys, defending the libretto; pointing out that, far from doing harm, it emphasised the invariable reward of virtue and the punishment of vice. Of course the effect of the controversy was that everyone was crazy to see this "wicked opera," which thus obtained a run unlike anything that Verdi had hitherto experienced. One can hardly understand now why "La Traviata" was singled out for censure, when "Don Giovanni" and "Lucrezia Borgia" were tolerated. In any case, tuneful music covers a multitude of sins, and Verdi survives when things more risque have gone to the wall.