La Traviata, Opera by G. Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi’s fallen woman saw the Italian master scale new heights in musical composition. Premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853, La Traviata was unlike anything in musical theatre that had gone before it. It is a truly revolutionary work, the first in opera seria to choose a character as low in the world as a courtesan for its protagonist. In an age when so-called gentlemen sought to hide the truth of their illicit liaisons, La Traviata stared them in the face to reveal the ugly hypocrisy of polite society. No wonder the censor demanded that Verdi switch the action from his preferred contemporary setting to the more distant and safer world of the eighteenth century.
Written to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, La Traviata is based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel and play, La dame aux camélias. A young aristocrat, Alfredo Germont, has fallen hopelessly in love with Violetta Valéry, La Traviata. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, fearful for his family’s reputation, urges Violetta to end her affair with his son. Dumas, Piave and Verdi create a wonderful subtext, one in which the audience is left to consider whether Violetta gives in to Giorgio’s demands out of love for Alfredo or whether she feels compelled to obey the conventions of the day.
Perhaps because Dumas based his story on a true person, the infamous Marie Duplessis, with whom the author is reputed to have been infatuated, there is a verisimilitude that defines La Traviata. Still very much a work of the Romantic period, the opera shows glimmers of the Verismo movement that followed decades later, epitomised by the works of the great Giacomo Puccini. In La Traviata, the one-dimensional roles of Italian tradition are replaced by characters made flesh and blood, Verdi skilfully ensuring that his music is at all times relevant to the story. Even his use of coloratura is designed to express Violetta’s emotions rather than provide an opportunity for his prima donna to show off her virtuosity.
An opera that scandalised audiences when it was first performed, the Teatro Costanzi, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma now presents La Traviata in the mid-nineteenth century as Verdi himself would have wished for, but never enjoyed in his own lifetime.