La Traviata, Baths of Caracalla
Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, the tale of a doomed love affair between a young nobleman and a courtesan, is widely recognised as a masterpiece of musical theatre. Unusual in its time for being a tragedy that did not resort to historical subject matter for grand dramatic effect, this superb work continues to draw operagoers from all over the world.
Violetta, the fallen woman of the title, is first presented as the archetypal party girl, loose with her morals and her men. Contradicting what we might assume about such a woman, when Alfredo becomes besotted with her, she in turn falls in love with him.
Moving from the city to the country to be with Alfredo, Violetta sacrifices her independence and place in society. Giorgio, Alfredo’s father, berates Violetta for the shame he has brought upon his family and demands that she ends their relationship when in truth it is only her money that is keeping Alfredo from financial ruin.
She does as Giorgio asks and Alfredo, discovering that Violetta has gone, assumes she has abandoned him for her old way of life. When he finds her, he flies into a rage, throwing money at Violetta for her ‘services’. Giorgio, who now realises he has misjudged Violetta, scorns his son’s contemptible behaviour.
La Traviata was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux camélias, a play based on a real-life ‘lady of pleasure’, Marie Duplessis. Verdi’s source material provided him with the means to create rounded characters who develop during the course of the drama and whom audiences can invest in and care about.
Premiered at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice on 6 March 1853, and destined this season for Rome’s breathtaking Baths of Caracalla, Verdi never saw La Traviata staged in the contemporary setting he had hoped for. The censors feared that doing so would cause a scandal. Fortunately, their decision did not detract from the care with which he scored the drama. From the first note to the last, the music matches to perfection both the story and the emotional journey of its protagonists.
Verdi may have been disappointed that his new opera was not presented as a document of the times he lived in, but the appeal of La Traviata lies in something more fundamental than props and costumes. Its universal message – that we should value people for who they truly are rather than base our opinions on appearance alone – is as relevant for us today as it would have been for those who first saw it in the middle of the nineteenth century.