La Traviata, Opera by G. Verdi
La Traviata remains one of the most compelling and thought-provoking operas in the repertoire. Yet its composer, the great Giuseppe Verdi, never saw the opera performed in the way he intended.
Verdi wrote La Traviata after a visit to the theatre to see Alexandre Dumas’ scandalous La Dame aux Camélias. Liberal Paris was a haven for artists seeking to push the boundaries, but Verdi was contracted to create his next work for La Fenice; he must have rued the fact that La Traviata would have to pass under the watchful eye of the far more conservative Venetian censor.
Although La Traviata’s first night, on 6 March 1853, was ruined by the theatre’s poor production values, this was a problem Verdi could fix. Far worse was the decision of the authorities to demand that the action be removed to the turn of the eighteenth century.
Why did this matter? Dumas’ play, inspired by its author’s infatuation with an infamous courtesan of the time, Marie Duplessis, had given Verdi the perfect opportunity to base his own drama on a real person rather than some imagined and distant historical figure. He had found the perfect source to achieve the marriage in opera between narrative and music he had been searching for, with every note serving the story.
Verdi’s Violetta is the only character who leaves the stage with her honour intact. When her lover, Alfredo, publicly humiliates her, he is unaware of her reasons for breaking off their relationship: not to return to a life of parties and of seducing other men, but to save his family from embarrassment, and protect him from seeing her succumb to the illness that will ultimately kill her. Society may scorn her, but she is the epitome of the tragic heroine.
Verdi was convinced that La Traviata, without its contemporary setting, would be stripped of its authenticity. He, however, had brought Violetta to life in a way that made the era the opera takes place in largely irrelevant. By forcing us to confront our prejudices, La Traviata, which now returns the Teatro Costanzi, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, speaks as strongly to us today as it would have done to the audiences of the nineteenth century.