At Seattle Opera January 2017
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Long Story Short:
Boy falls for courtesan; Dad tries to break them up; she dies; we cry.
What's Going On?
At a society event, guests await the arrival of Violetta Valéry, the city’s most sophisticated high-society prostitute. Violetta is dying, and the cruel voyeurs are eager to witness Violetta’s demise. The crowd foists a new admirer on her: a young, socially awkward bookworm named Alfredo Germont. But he lectures the prostitute, telling her that she should lead a respectable life in which love reigns supreme. She tries to dismiss his ideas as naïve and impractical, but reassesses her life, renounces her lifestyle, and moves to the country with Alfredo.
Violetta’s new perspective is shattered when Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s solid, middle-class father, confronts her. He wants her to leave his family alone. Violetta agrees to comply with Germont’s wishes and returns to the brutal society she left behind. When Alfredo discovers that Violetta has abandoned him, he is devastated and seeks revenge.
Violetta prepares to die. Alfredo comes to visit her in the hope of conjuring up one final illusion of their love, but he is too late.
Camellias, Daisies, and Violets
The myth of the consumptive courtesan who falls in love originated, as do many myths, with real life. Alphonsine Plessis was a poor girl from Normandy, from a background full of abuse, alcoholism, and sex trafficking. She came to Paris in 1839 and rose to meteoric fame as a courtesan. (Courtesans were independent women who cultivated relationships with wealthy admirers.) She changed her name to the classier-sounding “Marie Duplessis.” Before she died of tuberculosis at the age of 23, she had had a relationship with Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the flamboyant Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other great novels.
When Duplessis died, the younger Dumas wrote a novel, The Lady of the Camellias, which he later transformed into a stage play of the same name. It concerns a fictionalized Duplessis and Dumas, “Marguerite Gautier” and “Armand Duval”; the novel’s name comes from the heroine’s custom of wearing white camellias to the opera house to advertise her availability to the men of Paris. (Five days a month, when she was unavailable, she wore red camellias.) Her fictional name, “Marguerite,” means “Daisy.” The lover and his father, in the fiction, have little to do with the real life Dumas père et fils.
Verdi saw Dumas’s play at its first performances in February 1852. According to legend, he was so inspired he began writing music for his opera on the way home from the theater that very night. His frequent collaborator Francesco Maria Piave made the play into a libretto that fall, and La traviata premiered in March 1853. Alphonsine, transformed into Marie, fictionalized into Marguerite, operaticized as Violetta, still lives on as one of theater’s greatest roles and as a powerful image onto which we continue to project thoughts and feelings about men and women, power, money, independence, love, sex, disease, and death.
About the Composer
The greatest Italian composer of opera, Giuseppe Verdi was also a landowner and farmer; a philanthropist; an impossible, pessimistic, grumpy old stick-in-the-mud; and one of the founding fathers of the Italian nation. At the beginning of his life, Verdi was a simple peasant boy, the son of a humble country innkeeper, watching Napoleon’s troops flee the fields of northern Italy. At his funeral, 88 years later, 300,000 people burst into song in the streets of Milan as the coffin of this grand old man of Italian opera approached its final resting place. Verdi’s music became the life and breath of a new nation and is still acknowledged by many to be the crowning achievement of a venerable and glorious art form.
Verdi was born in 1813, in a tiny hamlet named Le Roncole, south of Parma. In those days the peninsula of Italy was divided into many little kingdoms, all ruled from afar as part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, Verdi was only a baby during the Napoleonic campaigns, during which Parma passed back and forth between France and Austria. One of Verdi’s earliest childhood memories was hiding in a church bell-tower with his mother while their town was being invaded by French troops.
His first opera was a success. But Verdi’s son, daughter, and finally his wife all died while he was working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, a comedy that flopped. The composer sank into a black depression from which he never really emerged. He swore he would never write another note and lost interest in everything.
The general director of La Scala (the opera house in Milan) convinced Verdi to try his hand at a third opera, and in 1842 Verdi wrote Nabucco. The audience at the premiere went berserk, and Verdi became a celebrity overnight. The success of this opera catapulted Verdi back into the composer’s seat. For the next 10 years, he roamed around Italy and Europe, pouring out a string of about 20 operas.
At the end of his years “in the galleys,” as Verdi once called that busy period, the 37-year-old composer bought a farm near his hometown and moved there with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former opera singer whose voice had been ruined. The Verdi-Strepponi relationship (not a marriage) horrified the conservative locals, especially if—as one biographer has suggested—the couple gave a child up for adoption. Verdi even ended up disowning his own parents and kicking them out of his house. As his family life was (for the second time) embroiled in catastrophe, Verdi penned three of the greatest operas of all time, all of which scrutinize tormented relationships between parents and children: Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.
Verdi lived near Busseto in his villa, called Sant’Agata, for the rest of his life, though he made frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Venice, Genoa (his favorite city in Italy), Paris, and places further abroad to oversee premieres of his operas. In 1861 he wrote the opera La forza del destino for St. Petersburg and spent two winters in Russia preparing the first performance. One of his greatest operas, Aida—set in ancient Egypt—received its world premiere in Cairo, not long after the opening of the Suez Canal. When Italy finally united itself as a nation under King Victor Emmanuel II, Verdi was one of the first members of the Italian parliament.
In his last 20 years, Verdi spent much of his time working on his farm. He also founded a retirement home for musicians in downtown Milan; to this day former opera singers and instrumentalists fill its halls. Verdi wrote only one opera in the 1880s and one in the 1890s: Otello and Falstaff, considered by many his greatest operas and the respective pinnacles of Italian tragic and comic opera.
The Death of Bel Canto
When Giuseppe Verdi started writing operas, in the 1840s, Italian opera was all about the singing. But Verdi wanted to write dramas in music, not concerts in costume. The year that Verdi wrote Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata signalled the end of opera’s bel canto period and the beginning of something new.
In those days, every town in Italy had an opera house—the bigger cities had several—and there was a tremendous demand for new operas. The public crowded the theaters every night, loudly voicing their approval (or, even more loudly, their disapproval!) of their favorite singers and composers. The conventions of bel canto made it possible for composers and librettists to put operas together at a furious pace, but the operas tended to be extremely formulaic. Every opera opened with a chorus; comedies ended in marriage, tragedies in death; each type of character (lover, rival, king, good girl, naughty girl, mother, etc.) was assigned to one of the voice ranges (light soprano, lyric soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, bass); declamatory music known as recitative carried the plot and connected the arias and ensembles. These pieces explore the characters’ emotions, contrasting a preliminary slow movement with an ensuing fast movement. A careful composer made sure to include all the popular types of pieces: a grand entrance aria for the diva; a brindisi or “Drinking Song;” an easy passage for the onstage band, or banda; a concertante ensemble (in which nothing happens while everyone sings about how surprised they all are); a mad scene; and a vengeance oath. (In La traviata, listen for the famous brindisi in the first scene, the banda playing from backstage, a great double-aria for the soprano, and a glorious concertante closing Act Two.)
When Verdi moved back to Busetto in 1849, he was ready to put some distance between himself and the opera world. He was tired of fighting with penny-pinching theater managers, unimaginative librettists, water-cooler-dictator police censors, and most of all, opera singers. Verdi understood that any singer’s chief goal was winning the audience’s applause and love, and not necessarily fulfilling the vision of the composer/dramatist.
Originally a failure, La traviata overturned the world of bel canto opera because it was set in the present: a drama of the current day instead of an ancient myth or a romantic tale of the middle ages. The opera also stabbed at the heart of the hypocritical sexual mores of mid-nineteenth century Europe by manipulating the audience into sympathizing with a “fallen” woman. La traviata hinges on the conflict between Violetta’s relaxed morals and those of her boyfriend’s father, a stodgy, conservative bourgeois who objects to his son’s liaison with a courtesan. The duet between old Germont and Violetta, which takes up the bulk of the second act, is one of Verdi’s most remarkable creations. A traditional bel canto form dissolves into a massive musical structure, one which morphs a fascinating conflict into music of simple yet rapturous beauty and penetrating dramatic insight. With this duet, Verdi finally freed himself for good from the shackles of convention. Although the first audiences hated La traviata, which cut a little too close to home for many of them, it has gone on to become one of the world’s most cherished operas.