La Traviata is one of the cornerstones of the operatic repertory. The score is littered with fantastics tunes that are now wildly famous (even those who aren’t at all operatically versed will know many of the arias from countless TV ads) but beyond that it is the coherence of the whole piece that makes it a masterpiece. The taut plot and vivid characters paired with Verdi’s perfectly attuned music tend to result in few dry eyes by the end of Act III.
It is currently the most popular of Verdi’s operas and also one of his most distinct. The scale is far more intimate than the vast majority of his output with effective no grand historic or political elements. The opera concerns itself with social issues contemporary to Verdi, almost autobiographical in places with regard to his own relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi (you can learn much more on our Verdi page).
It is also the only one of Verdi’s operas to specifically take place in his own time, “about 1850”. That was his wish, though for the premiere the censors forced him to shift the period, from the contemporary to some hundred years earlier, out of fear that the morality on stage might somehow slip out from the proscenium and into the aisles...
The real wonder of this work though is that regardless of the period, these character speak to our universal nature. The plight of Violetta makes sense regardless of whether we see her as a 19th Century courtesan, a 21st Century prostitute or something else altogether!
The Fallen Woman
Francesco Maria Piave
Date of premiere
March 6th, 1853
Number of Acts
Two hours, fifteen minutes
A young, deeply romantic, but rather foolish man with an angry streak. Makes off with Violetta.
Violetta's maid. Loyal to the very end.
Pays Violetta to be his lover. Loses a great deal of money to Alfredo at the gambling table.
Violetta's doctor. He can't do much for her as TB was at this time incurable.
A friend of Violetta and also one of the great non-parts in opera. Frequently onstage yet never noticed.
A friend of Alfredo's who brings Alfredo to a party so he can meet Violetta.
The stoically old fashioned father of Alfredo. He comes to understand young love by the conclusion but it takes a lot of pain and suffering from all involved to get him there.
The heroine of the piece. A courtesan with a heart (think Moulin Rouge) who comes to a predictably sticky end.
Act I - Running Time: 35 mins
The curtain rises on the Salon of Violetta Valery, a high class courtesan. She has recently been ill and is throwing a party to celebrate her recovery. She is approached by Gastone who tells her that his friend Alfredo Germont, a young nobleman, is deeply in love with her. Alfredo came to her house every day to check up on her while she was sick (which sounds a bit creepy to us, but this is a Romantic opera so we’ll waive our reservations).
Alfredo approaches and admits that all this is true. Baron Douphol, Violetta’s lover of the hour, is asked to give a toast but refuses. Alfredo steps up to the plate and sings ‘Libiamo ne' lieti calici’ otherwise known as the Brindisi, and the first of many highly recognisable tunes.
'Libiamo ne' lieti calici' sung by Rolando Villazon
The band strikes up in the next room and the guests all head out to dance. Violetta is overcome by dizziness and stays, telling her guests she’ll be with them in a minute. She is left alone but Alfredo returns out of concern and desperate to declare his love. She initially rejects him but she is moved by his obsession and as he is about to leave she gives him a flower telling him to return when it has wilted (which being the next day suggests Alfredo is far from a green thumb).
Left alone Violetta delivers one of the great tours de force of opera, first singing of her enchantment with Alfredo and then of the joy of living ‘always free’, ‘Sempre Libera’.
We hear Alfredo singing of love from outside as the curtain falls.
Angela Gheorghiu sings 'Sempre libera'
Act II - Running Time: 65 mins
The action leaps forward three months and we are now at Violetta’s country house outside Paris. Our leading pair have fallen in love and Violetta has abandoned her career as a courtesan. Alfredo sings of his happiness. However, Annina the maid arrives from Paris and reveals to Alfredo that she has been to Paris in order to sell off Violetta’s possessions so they can continue to fund their life in the country (they have no income). He is stunned and immediately leaves for Paris to acquire funds himself.
Violetta returns to find Alfredo gone. She has received a letter from Flora inviting her to a party this evening but she doesn’t intend to go. Her happiness is quickly blunted by Giorgio Germont’s arrival and his blunt request that she break up with Alfredo. Their relationship is threatening the engagement of Alfredo’s sister (Societal hypocrisy unable to handle a courtesan in a regular relationship). Violetta is initially unable to give up her love and Giorgio is impressed by her dignity, but he implores her desperately and she finally agrees.
We are now at Flora’s, her party in full swing. The Marquis gossips with Flora telling her that Alfredo and Violetta have separated. The party entertainment arrives and for no entirely obvious reason we and the guests are treated to a Matador & Gypsy spectacle.
Violetta arrives with the Baron. Alfredo is also at the party. Excitement ensues with Alfredo and the Baron going head to head at the gambling table. Alfredo wins over and over again, eventually Flora announces supper and Alfredo leaves with a small fortune in winnings. The Baron is less than pleased.
Everyone leaves but Violetta has asked Alfredo to meet with her privately. She fears either the Baron or Alfredo will challenge the other to a duel and asks Alfredo to leave before that can happen. Maddened he demands she tell him to his face that she now loves the Baron. She does so and he makes a frightful scene calling all the guests back into the room.
Alfredo vilely humiliates Violetta in front of everyone culminating in him throwing his winnings at her as “payment” for her services. She faints and the crowd loudly turns on Alfredo. Giorgio Germont arrives denouncing his sons behaviour. The Act closing with a tremendous ensemble number in which the various characters pour out their hearts.
Act III - Running Time: 35 mins
Months have past and we are in Violetta’s bedroom. She is on her deathbed, the tuberculosis having almost completely consumed her. Through her illness all her friends have abandoned her, and she is now penniless. She reads a letter from Giorgio Germont. He has told Alfredo of the sacrifice she made for Alfredo’s sister. Alfredo is on his way to beg for forgiveness. In one of the most moving of arias, “Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti” - Farewell, happy dreams of the past, Violetta details her fear that Alfredo will not arrive in time…
Alfredo and Violetta are reunited. Alfredo still believes they have a future together but it is all too late. Giorgio enters with Doctor Grenvil. They have a short, warm reunion before Violetta feeling a sudden surge of energy -- collapses and dies.
La Traviata came at the end of Verdi’s most frenetic period of composition, finishing what have become known as his Galley Years. It was 1851 and Rigoletto had just premiered to enormous acclaim at La Fenice in Venice. Verdi was already working on Il Trovatore but La Fenice offered him another commission and by May of 1852 a contract was signed for a premiere in March 1853, though Verdi did not yet even have a subject.
It is easy to find commonplace, and I can find 50 of them an hour; but it is difficult, very, very difficult, to find one that has all the qualities needed if it is to have an impact, one that is also original and provocative.
Verdi finally chose a subject but then after beginning work abruptly abandoned it and began from scratch on a new opera with Francesco Piave, his frequent librettist, based on “La Dame aux camelias” by Alexandre Dumas fils. This novel and then play had been an enormous success, but its themes were highly scandalous for the time. The alarm bells rang quickly, Varesi reportedly informing La Fenice of Verdi’s plan to put this “common whore” on the opera stage. Negative anonymous letters were sent and to top it off Verdi was informed that owing to the subject matter the opera could not be done in modern dress.
Verdi feared the worse: the premiere cast were not nearly what he wanted, especially Fanny Salvini-Donatelli as Violetta who was the opposite of the slender figure he imagined. He was so concerned he sent Piave to La Fenice to request a casting change but to no avail.
First night came and went as Verdi feared. Act I fared solidly but it was all downhill from Act II. Varesi considered Papa Germont unworthy so put minimal effort in while Lodovico Graziani as Alfredo just wasn’t up to snuff. The audience were unkind to Salvini-Donatelli, the legend goes that one shouted, “I see no consumption, only dropsy”. The opening was a disaster though the rest of the run was actually moderately successful financially (there's an upside to a good scandal) and other opera houses would quickly take up the opera.
Verdi would make a few alterations as the opera was taken up around Europe and he found his ideal Violetta in Maria Spezia. Slavini-Donatelli was not done with the part however, she would repeat the role several times!
The popularity of La Traviata both then and now is difficult to understate. It quickly became one of the most popular operas immediately after its premiere, reaching Vienna by 1855; London, Paris and New York by 1856. In the 1856/57 season the Théâtre des Italiens would give 87 performances of which 54 were either La Traviata (the French Premiere), Rigoletto or Il Trovatore. Verdi had cornered the market! Not much has changed since: today it is the most performed opera in the world (by some margin).
Filthy and immoral
Even the supporters of Verdi were not immune to qualms about the content of La Traviata. Abramo Basevi, an Italian musicologist, a contemporary of Verdi and the author of the first full-length study of Verdi’s output published in 1859, took issue writing:
Verdi was unable to resist the temptation of setting to music, and so making more attractive and acceptable, a filthy and immoral subject, universally loved because the vice it represents is universal.
Brindisi is the Italian word for a drinking song, deriving from a German phrase “bring dir's” (Offer it to you). There are a fair few examples of them in opera, Verdi also included ones in his Macbeth and Otello though the most famous is the one in La Traviata. They generally take the form of a solo singer encouraging the group to sing and the group responding by joining in with the song.
Another Brindisi, 'Inaffia l'ugola' from Verdi's Otello sung by Justino Diaz
Violetta is brought to her untimely end by consumption, which is the more glamorous name for the singularly unglamorous disease Tuberculosis (TB). Mimi in La bohème (another TB ridden 19th Century Opera) meets the same fate as have millions of others for much of human history. The 19th Century brought a particularly high concentration of TB deaths in part due to much higher population densities in cities: roughly 25% of deaths in Europe during the 1800s were due to TB.
Somewhat bizarrely TB became a highly romanticized illness, known as the White Plague, and almost celebrated for its supposed purity. As well as Violetta and Mimi, Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann is dying of TB and the disease features in a good deal of Romantic literature as a somehow noble, beautiful death. Byron went as far as to write "I should like to die from consumption".
It wasn’t until Robert Koch’s work in 1882 that TB was understood to be contagious, and prior to the 1940s it remained incurable. In his La bohème adaptation Rent Jonathan Larson replaced TB with AIDs, but TB is no disease of the past. Whilst it is true to say that it has been largely eliminated in wealthy nations, it is not nearly as true as it was 30 years ago in part due to a resurgence of TB in people who are HIV positive. According to the World Health Organization 1.4 million people died of TB in 2011.
Marie Duplessis on whom Dumas based his novel (and therefore the real life Violetta) was born Alphonsine Rose Plessis in Normandy, France 1824. Her journey to become one of the most infamous women in France is a not an entirely happy one.
When she was in her early teens she was effectively pimped out by her drunkard father to older men. He eventually sent her to Paris aged 15 to work for a seamstress. As an apprentice she earned very little and was effectively starving when she realized she could achieve far more by ‘working’ as a mistress.
Her successive lovers increased in wealth and importance and she changed her name to Marie Duplessis (the Du adding an air of faux aristocracy). She cultivated a salon attended by the wealthiest of Paris, and made herself one of the most refined women in Paris. However, she developed tuberculosis and, despite the efforts of some of the most famous doctors in France, died nearly penniless in 1847, at the age of just 23. She achieved an astonishing amount, especially in the context of the gender politics of the era, but make no mistake how she did it!