La Traviata, Opera by G. Verdi
La Traviata is a pivotal moment in the history of opera. With La Fenice pressing for a new work, and with his reputation now secure in Venice following the triumphant reception accorded to Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi was a composer ready to take risks.
La Traviata courted controversy. Its narrative, for opera, was astonishingly daring: here we have a courtesan for a heroine who denies herself the happiness she deserves in order to save the reputation of her lover’s family in a setting that is decidedly bourgeois rather than noble. But Verdi’s new opera was far more than just a different kind of story; he also abandoned conventional form at whatever point it got in the way of the development of the plot or the portrayal of his characters. This was music placed at the service of the drama, making Verdi much more of a soulmate with his German contemporary, Richard Wagner, than with his Italian predecessors.
So is the protagonist really a fallen woman? For modern-day opera lovers, Violetta Valéry is someone we respect because she is ready to give up partying and society for the honourable intentions of Alfredo Germont. It is Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, whom we despise along with his empty morals for demanding that she give up her relationship with his son.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, this was dangerous territory for opera. Those who went to see La Traviata in Verdi’s day realised, just as Giorgio does when he accepts that Violetta is worthy of his son’s love, that they would need to re-think many of their ideas, attitudes and prejudices. What makes La Traviata more fascinating still is that we can now appreciate that this was an opera at a crossroads, ready to pass up on the virtuosity of bel canto in exchange for a gritty authenticity that anticipated verismo long before Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.
La Traviata was a revelation and remains, over a century-and-a-half after it was written, worthy of revisiting time and time again. Now once more at the Gran Teatro La Fenice, the opera house where it was first performed on 6 March 1853, there is no better theatre in which to see and hear Verdi’s boldest work.