Listen to or read this downloadable podcast by General Director Aidan Lang. La traviata, Verdi’s immortal song of love and death, comes to Seattle this January as we’ve never seen it before, in a compelling, streamlined production that’s also the US debut of famed German director Peter Konwitschny. Created for the Verdi bicentennial in 2013, Konwitschny’s production has fascinated opera lovers in nine other cities en route to Seattle.
Hello everyone, it’s Aidan Lang here, here to speak to you about La traviata and our forthcoming production which opens on the 14th of January.
What’s the difference between art and entertainment?
A really good question. For me there is a difference between art and entertainment, and Seattle Opera is an arts company. Art is a fusion between emotion and thought. And every piece puts those two sometimes contrasting impulses in a different balance. But any piece of art should have something to say; afterwards we go away slightly changed people. It’s important to mention this because La traviata, which is one of the most-performed operas in the entire canon—it always features in between number one and number three in any given year—is an incredibly entertaining piece. It’s very easy for audiences to see a routine performance of La traviata and have no sense of the deep thought which underpins the love affair.
What is La traviata really all about?
This is a piece which presages feminism; Verdi is clearly speaking out for women’s rights, what women can achieve in a male-dominated society which allows unmarried women very few options. The love affair is broken precisely because the stigma attached to Violetta, in her role as a courtesan, is shocking and irredeemable to conventional society. A huge part of our sympathy with Violetta lies in acknowledging the stigmatization which dogs her ever since she made the decision to move into prostitution. At the end of our performance, I would like you, the audience, to leave the theater having been moved, having been excited and thrilled by the performance, on one hand, but with a deeper understanding of this question which dogged Verdi, and he wanted to put onstage.
The tension between the love-story element to the opera and the deeper underbelly, if you like, was probably best encapsulated for me a few years back while I was in New Zealand, and I was in conversation with a very well-traveled opera-goer who knew La traviata, and she turned on me when I mentioned, you know, that Violetta was essentially a prostitute. She was indignant: “What do you mean?! She’s NOT a prostitute!” What she had done was focus in exclusively on the love story element, at the expense of what the piece is about. And the piece is partially about prostitution.
What is a ‘courtesan?’
A courtesan was a kept woman. They were the possessions of whichever wealthy benefactor they had at that one moment. They had a very lavish lifestyle, all paid for by their protector; and it’s very easy to get swayed, with lavish scenery and décor, and not be aware of the fact that she’s only in that setting because she is kept. That display is really an expression of her protector’s vanity and his wealth. Just like a trophy wife today, so Violetta is owned by the benefactor. In this case it’s Baron Douphol.
The curtain goes up on La traviata and there’s this party in full fling. It’s very important to understand what has just happened. Violetta has spent some time away, recuperating or attempting to recuperate from her tuberculosis, from her consumption. And this party which she’s throwing is her re-entry back into Parisian society. She is under the protection of Baron Douphol. Almost immediately, Alfredo is introduced; there’s no time lost in that opening scene whatsoever. Watch out for a very telling little two-line interchange, right at the beginning, when the Baron doesn’t want to join in the brindisi, the toast, and he’s admonished, and he says, “Well, I’ve only known her for a year.” The reply is, “Well, he [Alfredo] has only known her for a minute!”
You see in his attitude in that one line that he has no affection for her whatsoever. She is there simply as an exhibit, to display his wealth. I think you’ll see in this production by Peter Konwitschny that the chorus, they’re not Violetta’s friends, they’re sponging on her, and they will quite happily move on to someone else. It’s almost like they’re parasites on Violetta. She’s throwing a party; they’ll drink and have a great time and we see them leave, they go. The second chorus in the first scene is very telling: they all sing “Thank you very much indeed, off we go,” and they’re going off to another party somewhere. So there’s a hardness and coldness at the heart of this Parisian society.
How does La traviata illuminate a social double-standard for men and women?
The key point, it seems to me, which really underpins this opera, is the double-standards of a society which, on the one hand, encourages this form of prostitution. It is a society dominated by male wealth. But at the same time, its moral code condemns it. The woman has no real choice once she has taken that path. That is literally contained within the title of the opera, La traviata. That title means “the one who has strayed from the path,” the path being of course moral correctness and rectitude in a nineteenth-century world. The double standards exist because once that path is taken, there seems to be no hope of forgiveness. Violetta points out how God is forgiving, but man isn’t. There’s a huge irony that a Christian-dominated society is unable to follow the clemency of Christ.
That really is what drives this piece: the double standards of society, which is incredibly cruel. Once a courtesan’s brief time in the limelight had faded, then they were simply discarded. The wise ones would have actually stored away some wealth gifted to them, but the rest of them lived their life in perpetual debt, because in order to furnish the lifestyle which was part of the display, they had to run up debts, which would get paid off, but then run up new debts, so they were actually always in a cycle of debt rather than wealth. And died in poverty. The original Violetta, Marie Duplessis to give her her adopted name, she died owing 50,000 French francs. An auction took place and her entire possessions were auctioned off, and half of it went to pay her debtors, despite the luxury. The courtesan is a disposable commodity. That unforgiving nature of the society is a crucial component of Violetta’s tragedy. She’s seeking some sort of salvation through her love for Alfredo, some way of ridding herself of the past, and the opera seems to be saying that “That past will always catch up with you, and there is no escape while you are here on this earth.” The one alternative is that, by making a sacrifice, by relinquishing Alfredo, that sacrifice is seen as the price one has to pay in order to have hope of salvation.
Why did Verdi choose this story to set to music?
We know that Verdi saw Dumas’ play in 1852 and seemed to be attracted immediately to the idea that this would make a good opera. He was no fool; the play was a sensational success, in both senses of the word, both doing very good box office, but also there was a sensationalist aspect to the idea. I think Verdi was very attracted by the idea of putting a character onstage who did not conform to conventional expectations of what a heroine should be. This is a prostitute, who is evoking our sympathy and compassion rather than being condemned.
We know, also, that at the time he was living out wedlock with a wonderful woman, Giuseppina Strepponi, and he felt very strongly about the way his small town back in Italy was turning against him. But I don’t think we should read too much into that. But certainly I think his own personal situation would have struck a chord with the story of The Lady of the Camellias, which became Traviata. The hypocrisy of the double standards struck him. He was no great church-goer; the strictness of a church-morality, against the free spirit which Violetta embodies, I think that attracted him greatly, in choosing this piece. A heroine who wasn’t just a simple victim, who was a victim of a wrong moral standpoint, was appealing to him. Again, it was the double standards, the hypocrisy at the heart of the society, helped him to create what is a genuinely tragic character in Violetta.
How did Verdi’s music revolutionize opera?
Now one of the aspects of La traviata is, it sits in a really interesting point in Verdi’s development as a composer. It’s two operas after Rigoletto, which transformed the way Italian opera, which had hitherto been written fundamentally to a certain format, that of the aria broken into two parts, a cavatina and then a faster section, called a cabaletta—a style of opera where the drama would move from one moment to the next, and then aria is a moment where the action stops. But with Rigoletto we see the first great opera which takes a step towards a more through-composed style of composition. Now Traviata continues that style.
This aria/cabaletta form is probably best seen in Alfredo’s aria at the beginning of Act Two. Violetta’s scena at the end of Act One, from “Ah, fors’è lui” leading to “Sempre libera,” is of course a cavatina/cabaletta structure; but Verdi is beginning to play with it. The interjection of Alfredo gives a different psychological undercurrent to the piece. It’s not a stop-still moment. We’re really seeing Violetta grappling with something new in her life: an understanding that Alfredo is not just one of the many admirers that she has, that there’s something different about him, something that she can’t quite place. Perhaps in this young man there is a way for her to change her life-path and find something new.
So there is a slight tension, if you like, between musical moments where a more simple musical form is given, but also a piece which has a tremendous onward drive. It’s probably best exemplified by the crucial duet between Violetta and Germont, the father of her lover Alfredo, when he comes to their house in the country in order to persuade her to relinquish her love in order to save the reputation of his family, which is tarred by the association. This is a long duet which moves between many different musical forms. Some of those musical moments do have a structure, and others are almost quasi-recitative or sit somewhere between the two. And it’s fascinating to view that duet from a musical point of view, because we have moments of melody, and we have moments of direct drama, especially when the two characters are in confrontation.
What is clever about his use of melody there is that he never lets the audience sit back. And I always say there is a danger with a great melody in opera: that the audience relaxes, they’re enjoying the melodic flow, and as we do that it’s very easy for us to disengage mentally, intellectually, with the drama. And it seems to me that Verdi in this passage begins to really find his feet in the way he allows melody to drive our emotional response, but at the same time keeps it very tight to a dramatic scheme. While the duet is quite long, certainly long in terms of Italian opera of this period, nevertheless it has a real dramatic purpose and forward momentum, despite drawing on melody from time to time. It’s a fascinating piece of writing, and is of course the kernel to the whole drama.
Verdi was obsessed by relationships between fathers and daughters. How does that play out in La traviata?
There’s a wonderful twist in the Germont-Violetta encounter. It’s almost like Violetta has become his daughter, or she has seen in him a sort of missing father-figure. Why is that? Why does she give in, why does this strong woman give in to this moral viewpoint which she doesn’t agree with and she’s rebelling against. I think it’s partly because she knows she is dying. It is to do with resignation rather than will. She knows, deep down, that there is no solution to her dilemma. She has a glimpse of her own fate. By the end of the duet there is a warmth between the two characters. We see a transition in Germont throughout the scene. He comes storming in, assuming almost that Violetta is a non-person, due to her profession. He’s disarmed when he sees that she has dignity. But by the end of the scene he’s understood that the world is a lot more complex. It’s almost like we see a father-daughter relationship, albeit at one remove. It’s a fantastic scene. You should look out for not only its narrative flow, but also the way the two characters change and how the dawning realization from Violetta of the lack of choice she will have, has a real counterpart in the way that Germont begins to understand Violetta’s point of view as well, from a personal and human point of view, rather than just an intellectual point of view.
Is La traviata a love story, or is it about death?
The original working title for this opera was not La traviata, but actually Love and Death. This opera is as much about her awareness of that trajectory, that the love offered by Alfredo is always but an interlude toward something that she knows, deep down, is coming. So we the audience are witnessing this inexorable decline, and the love story, and I heark back to my lady in New Zealand who latched onto the love story as if that was the purpose. That love interlude is but an interlude, and it is ultimately doomed to fail, because she is doomed to die, and relatively fast. Consumption, of course, if we were in a nineteenth-century setting, there was a known speed to the deterioration that that disease brings, and there was no known cure. That’s why the opera attains a really genuine tragic nature, rather than just being about emotion and pathos.
There’s something really heroic about Violetta. As Violetta faces this inexorable decline, she has found a meaning for her life. It’s not just empty; she has achieved something. In a way she has conquered the society which stigmatizes her choice and the society which gave her very few options anyway when she arrived in Paris as an unmarried young woman. It is a victory of sorts, a victory within death. We think about the final moment when the voice is taken away from her, she speaks, and believes for a moment that she is cured. The implication musically is that she does find a spiritual salvation; she moves on to another plane, one of happiness. The death which comes, the reaction is for us, not for her, as always with death. She dies at peace with herself.
Why is Seattle Opera giving La traviata in the Konwitschny production?
So this production by Peter Konwitschny, the great German director, is going to be different from the standard nineteenth-century crinolined Traviata which we’re so used to seeing. Why did I bring this production? Well, for a number of reasons. But firstly, I just want to throw out an observation, and that is this: Verdi was actually forced by the censor to set the first performance back around about 1700. I mean, it’s really hard for us to imagine that today, because we’re so used to the iconography of that very particular crinolined small-waistline of the 1850s. But actually that’s not what Verdi’s audience saw onstage. Why did the censor do that? Because as always, the censor understood the potency of what Verdi was offering, and its challenge to the moral status quo. The standby technique of any censor is, if we remove it by sufficient time, and sometimes by a different country, our audiences will not notice what the piece is really about. Verdi wanted this to be set in his contemporary times. And he didn’t see it as a contemporary piece until 1880, the first time it was done in modern dress. But this is one of the early examples of a modern-dress opera.
Now it seems to me that if we just blithely set it back in Verdi’s time, back in the 1850s, we are unconsciously doing exactly what the censor did to Verdi. By just presenting a prettified entertainment, we are going precisely against the artistic impulses which I spoke about at the very beginning of this podcast. Verdi was one of the most politically and socially aware opera composers of all time. And we would be doing him great disservice not to acknowledge that in the way we present this piece. So as I looked around for a production to bring in, I saw this production in London, and it struck me how compelling, how new, how different but not perversely different the experience of watching this production was, and how much I understood La traviata better than I had ever understood it before.
Tell us a bit about this director and his interpretation of La traviata.
Peter Konwitschny is an incredibly important director of opera. His father was an opera conductor, his mother was an opera singer, he grew up with opera, but he also grew up as a theater director as well. He spent about ten years at the Bertolt Brecht theater, the Berliner Ensemble, in Berlin. What that taught him was to distill and present onstage the essence of the drama. He is not a director who hides imposes a ‘concept’ on a production. The concept of this production, it seems to me, is exactly what Verdi wrote. What this production does is really show what Verdi wrote, rather than hiding behind design as an excuse to either not engage with the drama, or design as a means to overtly present a single viewpoint of the work. When I say it’s contemporary, it’s actually in an abstracted space, which makes us focus totally on the acting and the character and the words and the music, rather than distracting us by excessive decoration, which almost inevitably, as we admire decoration, we tend to cease to engage 100% with the drama as it is. This is a very pared-back approach to La traviata; but it’s pared back so that you really engage with what is going on.
A couple of moments you’ll see, where we have a classic piece of Brechtian alienation, for example during “Sempre libera,” Alfredo’s voice, rather than being disembodied, he’s actually present, but he’s in the auditorium. The voice is in her mind, if you like. That very simple effect is a Brechtian technique. We also see it I think at the very end, where, rather than collapsing in a melodramatic heap on the floor, after her final word, Violetta literally fades away; she leaves the stage, she just fades away and we’re left with nothingness. Once a body is buried you are left with nothingness, so it’s a rather beautiful image of death, rather than a melodramatic image of her death. So when I say it’s modern and contemporary, I don’t want you to feel that it’s in any way abrasive and destructive. It seems to me a very serious piece of work on Peter Konwitschny’s part, driven by a very serious work of art.
Tell us about the musicians in our production.
I’m very pleased to introduce a number of debutants to Seattle Opera for this production. First one is of course our conductor, Maestro Stefano Ranzani. Stefano and I worked together many, many years ago, we worked at Glyndebourne Festival doing Barber of Seville. Really, his career has taken on a meteoric rise. He started out, funnily enough, as a violin player in the orchestra of La Scala, then took to conducting and has conducted on major stages all around the world including the Met. And so I’m really thrilled to give someone who knows this piece so well an outing on the Seattle Opera podium.
We have a debut for Corinne Winters, one of our Violettas, and a return for Angel Blue. Angel was with us in Porgy and Bess a few years back and her career, again, is taking a wonderful upward turn; she made her La Scala debut quite recently. Corinne actually sang this production at English National Opera, although that’s not the reason we cast her. She’s such a compelling singing actress, we decided to cast her before we had finalized the production. I know she’s really looking forward to re-engaging with this particular production, which is demanding for the Violetta, but incredibly fulfilling.
We have two really stellar young American tenors as Alfredo, we have Zach Borichevsky who I saw recently down at the Met, singing in Manon Lescaut, just last week, and Joshua Dennis, who I had seen sing at Santa Fe last year. Both of them are making their Seattle Opera debuts. And as Germont, we have a very welcome return for Weston Hurt, who of course was with us twice last season, and a debut for Stephen Powell, a hugely experienced singer and probably long overdue on the Seattle Opera stage.
As you know, we’ve dropped any notion of it being ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver.’ We have two Gold casts here, and it’s really important to understand that. I think we’ll see two very different evenings, just because of the different vocal styles and probably the different acting styles. Whichever cast you’re going to be seeing, we’re really really happy with the singers we have, and I know you’re in for a fascinating and stimulating version of La traviata.