The Story Behind the Opera, "La traviata" by Giuseppe Verdi
“La traviata,” also known as “The Fallen Woman” is an opera crafted by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in three acts. It is set to a libretto written by Francesco Maria Piave and is based on the famous play titled “La Dame aux camélias.” The play is in turn adapted from a novel written by Alexandre Dumas. The original title of the opera was “Violetta,” after the protagonist. “La traviata” went on to become extremely popular and is one of the most frequently performed operas across the globe.
Verdi’s journey began in 1852 when he saw “La Dame aux camélias,” the theatrical sensation earning plaudits in Paris. The play was based on a fictionalized account of Alexandre Dumas’s affair with Marie Duplessis, a real-life escort. Although the play was based on Dumas’s novel “Camille,” it successfully utilized Marie’s fame to the fullest.
Noted biographers believe that Verdi had probably read the novel before that, but the play eventually motivated him to consider it seriously. After returning to Italy, he had already made up his made and started recruiting his ideal operatic cast. He started developing ideas for the music of “La traviata.”
History & Performances
Francesco Maria Piave was appointed to craft the new libretto, as he partnered with Verdi to develop a suitable theme. However, there remained reservations about censorship in Venice. The duo came up with a synopsis in a short time, which was titled “Amore e morte,” meaning “Love and Death.” Verdi subsequently changed it to “La traviata,” as recorded in his letters. As the date of the premiere approached, it soon became apparent that Verdi’s choice of staging a modern dress “La traviata” was impossible. The opera was finally performed on the 6th of March, 1853 at the “La Fenice” opera house in Venice. It was met with jeers, as the audience turned against the singers. While the impresarios started demanding for productions, Verdi became skeptical. He wanted to test the strength of the singers before allowing any sort of performance.
In February and May, 1855, the opera was performed in Madrid and Vienna respectively. It reached England in May, 1856 and crossed the Atlantic in December, as it was staged in New York’s “Academy of Music.” A simultaneous performance was held in France in the same month at “Théâtre Lyrique.” In 1865, the French adaptation of the opera was published.
Controversy followed “La traviata” around Europe. The performance in London was met with a self-righteous critical response, a sort of moral indignation, even calling it abominable and hideous. However, critics and censors failed to dampen the spirit of the audience. The opera became an instant hit with female viewers, who sympathized and related to Violetta’s agonizing tale. Verdi had succeeded in confronting the public. He didn’t offer a mere theatrical consolation but depicted the fate of “fallen women” in the society, which still requires attention.
To truly understand the influence of Verdi’s behemoth, it is necessary to learn about the play and the various arias and libretto infused within.
A lavish party is being held at Paris salon of Violetta Valery, a famed demimondaine who is celebrating her recovery from illness. Gastone, a British nobleman arrives with his friend Alfredo Germont, a young bourgeois who adores Violetta. Gastone further states that Alfredo loves Violetta and called on her daily while she was ill. This angers Baron Douphol, Violetta’s current enthusiast, who subsequently refuses the crowd’s invitation to propose a toast. Alfredo, however, accepts it and belts out a drinking song or “brindisi” titled “Let's drink from the joyful cups.”
As the dancing continues, Violetta starts feeling dizzy and eventually faints. As the guests leave, Alfredo stays behind and confesses his love for her. This scene is accompanied by a due titled “One day, happy and ethereal” or “Un dì, felice, eterea.” However, Violetta offers her admirer friendship instead. She offers him a flower and asks him to return when it wilts. Once Alfredo leaves, Violetta ponders over the proposal (“Ah, perhaps he is the one,”) but eventually decides against it. She chooses freedom, as the aria titled “Sempre libera” or “Always free” is sung.
It starts in a secluded country house near Paris, where Violetta and Alfredo are living together. Violetta has abandoned her glamorous past after falling in love with Alfredo, who renders “The youthful ardor of my ebullient spirits” to mark the occasion. Subsequently, Annina, Violetta’s confidante informs him that she has made arrangements to sell off Violetta’s properties to settle their debts. Alfredo suddenly realizes the sacrifice his partner has made for their relationship and immediately leaves for Paris to settle matters on his own. After he leaves, Violetta receives a party invitation from her old acquaintance, Flora but turns it down.
In the evening, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father visits Violetta and commands her to break up the relationship for his family’s sake. He further reveals that the relationship is hampering the engagement of Alfredo’s sister. Giorgio performs “Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter,” but is somewhat impressed by Violetta's virtue. So he pleads with her to leave Alfredo. Violetta reluctantly agrees, showcasing her remorse through the song “Tell the young girl, so beautiful and pure.” As Violetta writes a letter, Alfredo enters the scene. Violetta can barely hold back her tears and sadness and repeatedly professes her love for him through the song “Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you” (“mami, Alfredo, amami quant'io t'amo.”) She leaves for Flora’s party after handing over the letter to a servant.
Alfredo finds the letter and reads it tearfully. Soon, his father Giorgio enters and attempts to console him. He further reminds his son of his family in Provence through the song “Who erased the sea, the land of Provence from your heart?.” However, Alfredo suspects that Giorgio is behind Violetta’s disappearance, and despite repeated imploration from his father, leaves to confront Violetta.
The guests in the party learn about the couple’s separation, as entertainers belt out the songs “We are matadors from Madrid,” and “We are gypsy girls who have come from afar.” The guests join in and perform the chorus “Piquillo is a bold and handsome matador from Biscay.”
As Violetta arrives at the party with Baron Douphol, Alfredo confronts them. The baron challenges Alfredo to a gambling game, which Alfredo wins. Subsequently, supper is served and the guests start leaving. Violetta meets Alfredo and pleads with him to leave, dreading that the baron might end up dueling him. However, Alfredo misinterprets her trepidation and demands that she admit her feelings for the baron. A grieved Violetta succumbs to the pressure and reciprocates. Alfredo furiously calls upon the guests, denouncing and humiliating Violetta (“You know this woman?”) as she faints. The guests rebuke Alfredo through a chorus “Ignoble insulter of women, go away from here, you fill us with horror!” Giorgio enters the scene and denounces his son too, as the chorus “Di sprezzo degno sè stesso rende chi pur nell'ira la donna offende” is performed. Flora and the guests then try to convince Violetta to leave, but she churns out the heartbreaking song “Alfredo, Alfredo, you can't understand all the love in this heart…” instead, closing the scene.
Violetta is perilously ill and suffering from tuberculosis. She reads a letter from Giorgio, who informs her that Alfredo is coming to meet her to ask for forgiveness. But she feels it will be too late and sings “Farewell, lovely, happy dreams of the past.” Alfredo arrives and reunites with his lover, suggesting they will leave for Paris through the song “We will leave Paris, O beloved.” However, the couple realizes it really is too late, as the duet “Great God!...to die so young” is performed. As the duet ends, Violetta exclaims that she doesn’t feel any pain or discomfort anymore and passes away in Alfredo's arms.
“La traviata” utilizes the following instrumentation - strings, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, cimbasso, three trombones, two trumpets, bassoons, clarinets, oboes, and flutes respectively and four horns. The “Banda” or the additional ensemble includes 3 trumpets, A-flat and E-flat clarinets, two each of double bass, harp, castanets, tambourine, and trombones.
The prelude starts with extremely delicate, yet very high strings, which depicts the frail protagonist. It is followed by the main romantic theme, which utilizes the lower string as the higher instruments enrich the melody. This intricate atmosphere is reversed soon, as the lively dance tunes accompany the orchestra. After the famous drinking song is performed, a series of waltzes are belted out in the First Act, fabricating a Parisian atmosphere. The First Act ends with vocal ornamentations, including a feverish decoration of the protagonist’s mental strength.
Act 2 is personified with a length albeit pivotal duet, where the frequently changing dramatic landscapes are perfectly complemented by the daunting tunes. This is the only Verdi opera which was entirely set indoors. The music feels intimate, equipped with tender lyrics. Violetta’s character development, from a hectic, hysterical “coloratura” to a dramatic and delicate ending is synchronized to perfection, thanks to the spiritual quality of the music.
Giuseppe Verdi’s life was full of tragedies, more than what we can imagine, which was subsequently reflected through his work. His operas were far from comedies, except for two noteworthy exceptions. He successfully offered the public what they wanted - violent works packaged in a serious and gloomy tone. The critics termed them as typical melodramatic romance infused with blood and thunder. In spite of these overblown and improbable narratives, Verdi made people react. He had the incredible gift of making people think, cry, and laugh through his work.
Verdi went further with his music than the inroads Dumas made with his story, establishing Violetta as the prime recipient of the viewer’s sympathies. However, this daring and directness cost him early criticism, as the press reflected on the moral rectitude of his masterpiece. He doesn’t just offer a contemporary narrative but sets it to matching music. The trusted and proven polkas and the waltzes, the sensuality, the erotic pleasures of drinking, a life that encouraged moral corruption were at the forefront and took the world by storm. Verdi had dealt with life, he had sprung headfast into the great social and moral dilemmas of the world - passion, disease, and prostitution, truly a tale of “Love and Death.”
“La traviata” exposed the open wound of the society - politics, misogyny, and hypocrisy then prevalent at the heart of Europe. He had simultaneously confronted his own demons. The music clutched our hearts. Verdi’s music taught us that in our weakest moments, we can experience the true strength of love. An enduring belief in humanity. A work of art, from the one true wizard of modern harmonies.
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