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La traviata premiered on March 6, 1853 at Teatro La Fenice, Venice.
The opera takes place in Paris around 1850.
Verdi and La traviata
Between 1850 and 1853, Giuseppe Verdi would compose his three most famous and beloved operas --Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata. Of his twenty-seven operas, these three form the core of his middle period of composition, and fully express his musical and dramatic power. Only a few weeks separate the premieres of Il trovatore in Rome and La traviata in Venice. Indeed, sections of La traviata were written on the train between Rome, Venice, and Verdi’s villa at Sant’Agata.
La traviata is based on the play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas, Jr., the son of the famous author of The Three Musketeers. Best known to Classic Movie buffs as Camille, the play was first performed in Paris in 1852 and Verdi saw a performance. The basis of La Dame aux Camélias lies in fact – a true liaison between the author Dumas and the beautiful Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, who he lived with during the summer of 1845.
None of Verdi’s operas before La traviata dealt with a contemporary setting – from Nabucco to Il trovatore, the settings were historic or mythical and the characters were representations of human emotions, but never based on actual living people. La traviata is set in what would have been contemporary times (Paris in the 1850s). Its subject, which deals with an illicit love affair by a young man from the provinces with a provocative kept woman, includes scenes showing the rich and powerful being involved with the demi-monde, the world of courtesans, gambling and extravagance of Paris at that time – taboo subjects that were scandalous.
On opening night, the Venetian public saw characters dressed as they would have dressed, in circumstances dealing with women of loose virtue, familial conflict and the most dreaded of contemporary illnesses, tuberculosis. Add to this the fact that soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, the first Violetta, was a stout woman portraying a beautiful, frail and vulnerable courtesan, and you have the makings of a disaster – and a disaster it was. The day after the March 6 premiere, Verdi wrote to his assistant, “Emanuele: Traviata last night – a fiasco. Was it my fault or the singers? Time will tell.” Well, time has indeed judged that La traviata is one of Verdi’s greatest works, the third of this famous triumvirate of operas from this extraordinarily creative period in his long and productive life. La traviata remains a touching story that moves us even today.
Fall in Paris. Violetta Valéry, a beautiful and engaging courtesan, is holding a supper party for her patron and lover, the Baron Douphol. Gaston introduces his friend, Alfredo Germont to her. He explains that Alfredo came every day during her recent illness to inquire about her health. It is clear that Violetta has been ill, but her friends do not realize she has the scourge of the 19th century, tuberculosis. In the famous Brindisi, or drinking song, Alfredo sings a toast to love, to which she replies. As the guests go off to dance, Violetta collapses in a fit of coughing. Quickly recovering, she tells them to proceed to the ballroom, but Alfredo lingers behind and declares his love for her. She laughs at his ardor, but is touched by his sincerity. She dismisses him, but tells him that he may return when the camellia she has given him has faded. The guests leave and she remains alone to consider Alfredo’s invitation to love. She realizes that the social conventions that bind her life make true love impossible, and she resolves to continue her life of feverish gaiety in the thrilling aria Sempre Libera (Always Free) .
Violetta’s country house in the spring. For several months Violetta has been living happily with Alfredo. Alfredo tells us that his soul is in heaven when he is with Violetta. He surprises the maid who has just returned from Paris. She reluctantly tells him that Violetta has been selling off her property to pay for the life she is now leading. His pride wounded, Alfredo leaves for Paris immediately to stop this. In his absence, Violetta receives a visit from his father, Giorgio Germont, a well-to-do businessman from the provinces who has come to confront the courtesan he believes is ruining his son’s life. He tells her that their illicit love affair is the reason why his daughter cannot be married. At first, Violetta assumes Germont wants her to leave Alfredo until the wedding is over. But that is not what the old man wants. He reminds her that her past will always haunt them, and that true love can never be hers. In despair, Violetta tells him that Alfredo is all she lives for, and such a sacrifice would kill her. This is not simply melodrama. For in the months she has been in the country with Alfredo, her health has improved substantially and she truly believes she has escaped her past, and her illness. Giorgio cruelly tells her that someday her beauty will fade and Alfredo, like all men, will grow tired of her. Succumbing to his unrelenting demands, Violetta sacrifices herself to Germont’s wishes, asking only to be embraced as a daughter and to allow her to break the news to Alfredo. Germont leaves Violetta to decide how to break it off with Alfredo. She wants to write him a letter and leave before he returns. Just then, Alfredo surprises her. Having finished her letter to him, she says she is leaving for a short while, but will return. Alfredo reads the letter and is crushed beyond belief. His father reappears to offer consolation and to ask him to come home to the family that loves him. Angrily rejecting this suggestion, Alfredo notices an invitation for that evening from Flora, one of Violetta’s friends, and he concludes that this is where he will find her.
At Flora’s, a magnificent party is underway complete with gambling, dancing, entertainment and gypsy fortunetellers. Violetta has returned to her former lover, Baron Douphol, and arrives with him. Alfredo then enters, to the surprise of everyone. He gambles with the Baron and wins a substantial sum. Violetta begs Alfredo to leave, but he forces her to explain her behavior; in desperation, and to protect Alfredo’s father, she says that she no longer loves him. At this, Alfredo calls the guests to witness that he pays his debts in full and throws his winnings at the face of the courtesan. Flora’s guests are outraged at his cruel behavior and the Baron challenges Alfredo to a duel.
Violetta’s bedroom. It is winter, cold and desolate. Violetta’s health has declined, the Baron has left her, and her money is almost spent. She tells Annina to give half of what little remains to the poor. She has received a letter from Alfredo’s father explaining that Alfredo had wounded the Baron in a duel and that Alfredo has left Paris. He tells her that his son now knows the truth of her sacrifice and that they will both soon return to ask her forgiveness. Too late, she cries, and in a magnificent aria, she realizes her life will soon be over. Alfredo arrives and for a moment, he convinces her she will recover and again be happy. It is too late for her, and she gives Alfredo a locket that she tells him to give to the woman he will someday meet and marry. She asks him to be happy, and remember her. Reconciled to both father and son, and no longer bound by social convention, Violetta’s sacrifice is complete as the curtain falls.
Violetta Valéry (soprano) - The most beautiful, alluring, desired courtesan in all of Paris. Raised in the provinces among simple, poor people, she came to Paris to change her life and turned to the world of the demi-monde. Courtesans were not simple prostitutes. They were educated, sophisticated women who were the mistresses of aristocrats, and who were expected to entertain for them in the society of the demi-monde.
Alfredo Germont (tenor) - A young man from the provinces. From a good middle-class family. Raised with money, he has come to Paris to make his way in the world. He meets Violetta and falls immediately and completely in love with her.
Giorgio Germont (baritone) - Alfredo’s father. An upright middle-class, self-made businessman. He represents all the qualities of the provincial morality.
As one of the most internationally acclaimed Italian composers of his time, Giuseppe Verdi has dominated the standard repertoire for over a century. Born in Busseto to Carlo Guiseppe Verdi, an innkeeper, Verdi attended the local Jesuit school where he was first introduced to music. By the age of 10, he was the assistant organist at his local church; at the age of 13, Verdi was already an assistant conductor of the Busseto Orchestra.
Later, Verdi moved to Milan but was unable to enroll in the conservatory because he exceeded the age limit. Instead, he took private lessons from Vincenzo Lavigna, the harpsichordist at the Scala Theater. In 1837, he composed his first opera, Oberto, which enjoyed moderate success. It was with Nabucco (1842), however, that Verdi became a legend.
During the "galley years" from 1843 to 1853, Verdi continued to compose operas under the patronage of Bartolomeo Merelli, one of Milan's most important impresarios. Some of his more notable works from this period include I Lombardi (1843), Ernani (1844), Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), and La traviata (1853). His production of Macbeth (1847), an adaptation of Shakespeare's masterpiece, became one of the first operas without a love story.
At 49, Verdi had been elected deputy to the first Italian parliament and, at Cavour's request, composed a national hymn to promote feelings of solidarity within the new nation. With the death of Rossini in 1868, Verdi composed the nationalistic Requiem Mass in homage to his illustrious colleague modeled on Rossini's overture for Guglielmo Tell.
In 1871, Verdi composed Aida, intended to be Egypt's national opera. With its premiere in Cairo, the opera became an immediate success and has remained one of Verdi's greatest artistic achievements.
Verdi died of a stroke in Milan on January 27, 1901.
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