About La Traviata

November 5, 2018 | By Opera Colorado | La Traviata
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Opera Colorado’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata runs November 3-11, 2018. For tickets and information, click here.

To read a synopsis of La Traviata, click here.

Program Note

Just because an opera is a masterpiece doesn’t mean that the audience at its premiere is always aware of the fact. All too often, early judgments have fallen short of the mark. Consider Verdi’s La Traviata. When the piece opened in Venice at the La Fenice opera house March 6, 1853, the audience mocked the tenor for being in poor voice and the baritone for being too young to be convincing in his “father” role. As for the soprano, she was so badly overweight that her character’s protestations of weakness and ill health drew nothing but cruel laughter from the audience, and when she was to “faint” into her tenor’s arms, she decked the poor man to the stage. No one was willing to believe that she was wasting away from tuberculosis, nor that she was a fabulously desirable courtesan. Verdi called the night “a fiasco,” yet did not allow himself to be overly distressed. “I do not think that the last word on La Traviata was uttered last night. They’ll see it again,” he wrote to a conductor friend, “and then we’ll see.” History has shown his optimism to be well-placed.

Verdi had also come into criticism for his choice of story. The piece is adapted from La Dame aux camélias, the recent play and novel of Alexandre Dumas the younger (1824–1895), in which the writer recalls an actual “lady of pleasure” he has known and adored. Like Violetta in the opera, the historical Marie du Plessis (1824–1847) fascinated Parisian society with her wit, charm, and beauty. Even Franz Liszt (1811–1886) fell under Marie’s spell, but her reign was a brief one. She died of tuberculosis at age twenty-three, and was soon memorialized in Dumas’s exuberant prose.

The tale caught the attention of Verdi, who began work on the opera even as the play was still on stage in Paris. However, what passes in drama may yet be controversial in opera, and audiences were not prepared to accept a “fallen woman” as heroine, let alone one based on a contemporary figure. Whether or not she had a heart of gold, Violetta was still not seen as a lady to be admired, and since a visit to the opera house was as much a social diversion as an artistic experience, the mere suggestion of a Violetta conflicted with society’s image of itself. Moreover, the composer wanted a contemporary setting, and that, declared opera producers, was unacceptable. Surely such events could not take place in a modern world; only a historic setting would make it plausible.

Despite its early hurdles, La Traviata is now Verdi’s most frequently performed work. At the time, however, it was the latest work of a prolific composer. Il Trovatore had premiered less than two months earlier, Rigoletto only two years before that. La Traviata would be his 19th completed opera, all of which had reached the stage. Nine more would follow, with a similar record of performances; few opera composers can claim that everything they ever wrote came promptly to the stage. Verdi’s reputation was such that each new work was eagerly awaited, even if its immediate predecessor had fallen short of expectation.

Observers at the premiere might have been wanting something different from La Traviata. However, that was in part because they had come into the theater with their own impressions of what they hoped Verdi would do. Once directors began to pay closer attention to casting and audiences became open to modern-day settings, the work was able to prove itself the equal of anything Verdi had ever composed.

Musically speaking, the opera contains arias for each of the three principal roles, and the one for soprano that concludes Act I is especially challenging. For nearly a quarter of an hour, she holds forth alone on stage, reflecting upon love and freedom. She has met a nice young man who declares that he loves her and she wonders if life with him would be as rewarding as her current life of pleasure. At first reflective, the music gradually builds in intensity, moving ever faster and ever higher in pitch. That these pages of greater intensity accompany her words regarding the enchanting life of a courtesan may seem to indicate she is leaning in that direction. However, that nice young man is outside her window serenading her, and by the next act, they will be sharing a house in the country. Perhaps the intensity of the aria’s closing pages is less due to her preference for the fast life and more from the nervousness that comes with facing a life change. Give a skilled director a soprano of dramatic abilities–not just musical ones–and much can be made of the scene. However, neither would have much to work with had Verdi himself not put it on the page.

Program notes and synopsis © Betsy Schwarm, author of Operatic Insights, and seven other books on classical music.

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