Explore La traviata
Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2019 production of Verdi’s La traviata. Pacific Opera was one of five Canadian opera companies who collaborated in this historic co-production. It was performed at Manitoba Opera and Edmonton Opera in 2018. Following its Victoria run, the production moved to Vancouver Opera and will be presented at Opéra de Montréal in the future. Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Artistic Director and Stage Director, and selections from media reviews.
When Life Meets Art
A few people raised scornful eyebrows in 2011 when the Royal Opera House premièred Anna Nicole, based on the short, sensational life and death of Anna Nicole Smith, an actress, reality star, and Playboy centrefold who had died four years earlier of a drug overdose.
How tawdry, they thought, to rip some raunchy scandal from the tabloids just to make it into an opera!
Yet this is exactly what Giuseppe Verdi did for the 1853 premère of La traviata, based on the short, sensational life and death of a high-class prostitute who had died of tuberculosis just six years earlier.
The parallels are even stronger when we read some of the (definitely mixed) reviews of Anna Nicole. The New York Times‘ Anthony Tommasini called it musically rich, audacious and inexplicably poignant, a description that could easily apply to La traviata, Verdi’s compassionate and musically gorgeous portrait of a character who, in the minds of his contemporaries, did not deserve to be an opera heroine.
The attitude of the day was summed up by Felice Varesi, the baritone in the première cast, who sniffed, The main character is a kept woman or rather a common whore of our own time who died in Paris not very long ago.
La traviata (The Fallen Woman) was based on the true story of a semiliterate waif who reinvented herself as the courtesan Marie Duplessis, the toast of Paris until her death in 1847 at the age of 23. Within six years, Marie’s dazzling, sordid life spawned a best-selling novel, a hit play, and Verdi’s opera.
Rose Alphonsine Plessis, raised in poverty by an abusive alcoholic, arrived in Paris at the age of 15 and worked in dead-end jobs until a restaurant owner set her up in an apartment as his mistress.
She changed her name to the more upscale Marie Duplessis and parlayed her beauty and intelligence into a brilliant career as a courtesan.
Marie was part of the demi-monde (half-world) , that luxurious, shadowy world where respectable men from polite society (le monde) were entertained by women who were definitely not considered respectable. The demi-mondaines lived extravagantly on gifts and cash provided by their various lovers. Their life was a financial and social tightrope; there was no job security, and legitimizing a relationship through marriage was out of the question.
Alexandre Dumas fils (whose father wrote the swashbuckling thrillers The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask) fell in love with Marie when they were both 20. Young Dumas was a struggling writer. Marie was already established as mistress to a dizzying succession of wealthy aristocrats. The couple broke up after a year, when Dumas realized he could neither afford her extravagance nor cope with her endless stream of lovers.
When Marie died, the sale of her estate presented an irresistible opportunity for respectable Parisian society to descend on her apartment and gape at the luxury she had amassed, now being sold to pay her debts – silver and jewels, furniture, paintings, chandeliers, gowns, furs, a horse, pony, and hunting dog, a parrot with blue and yellow feathers, some 200 books, and even a Pleyel piano that Franz Liszt, one of her lovers, had played.
Morally superior, morbidly curious, all of Paris flocked to the sale. Beau monde, demi-monde, merchants, creditors, and all that Paris counted of curiosity, jostled there. Great ladies, titillated by the perfume of debauchery, quarrelled over the smallest comb, pins, shawls, jewels. [Novelist] Eugène Sue will boast of having acquired the missal of the sinner, Dumas his annotated copy of Manon Lescaut. (Véronique Maurus, Le Monde)
Charles Dickens, who was in Paris at the time, wrote, For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers. Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demi-monde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.
With almost unseemly haste following Marie’s death, young Dumas dashed off a novel about their affair. Published in 1848, La dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) was a sensation. Dumas renamed his doomed heroine Marguerite Gautier and cast himself as her lover Armand. His semi-autobiographical narrative added a virtuous haze to her character – and a few fictional touches.
In Dumas’ story, as in Verdi’s opera, the courtesan falls in love with a respectable young man and gives up her decadent life to live with him in the country … until his father comes calling and tells her the scandalous liaison is ruining his family’s reputation and the marriage prospects of his daughter. The courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold agrees to abandon her lover; the latter, thinking she has taken up with another man, reacts bitterly.
The real Marie Duplessis would not have given up her luxurious lifestyle for a struggling writer, no matter how beloved; nor would she have sacrificed her love on the altar of bourgeois respectability. Indeed Marie was admirably frank about how expensive she was; she wrote one would-be lover, I realize that mine is a sordid profession, but I must let you know that my favours cost a great deal of money…. My protector must be extremely rich to cover my household expenses … and satisfy my caprices, which are numerous, varied, and whimsical.
Dumas subsequently adapted his novel into a play, adding a new twist to the story: the lovers were reconciled, paving the way for a classic, three-hanky deathbed scene.
Over the decades following its 1852 première, the play (also titled La dame aux camélias, and known in English as Camille) took on a life of its own on stage and film. Actresses clamoured to play Marguerite, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Gish, and Greta Garbo. It has been said that for a century La dame aux camélias was probably the world’s single most popular play. In recent decades it has gone out of fashion, but the legacy of Marie Duplessis and Marguerite Gautier has never been more assured, thanks to La traviata, its glorious music, and its lovable heroine, Violetta Valéry.
In 1852 Verdi attended one of the première performances of La dame aux camélias. He instantly recognized its potential as box office gold.
Verdi surely also found in the story an echo of his personal situation. Since 1849 he had been living with Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano whose influence had helped launch his career, and who had been the original Abigaille in Nabucco. They would marry in 1859 and remain together until her death in 1897. Although the couple’s relationship was accepted in Paris, it caused a scandal in rural Italy, where they lived. The good townsfolk of Busetto ostracized Strepponi, outraged by her reputation – she had given birth to an unknown number of illegitimate children – and by the fact that she and Verdi were living in sin.
Verdi knew he’d get pushback when he decided to do an opera featuring a contemporary heroine of questionable reputation. He wrote, Perhaps someone else would not have done it because of the costumes, the period, and a thousand other awkward reservations. I am doing it with immense pleasure.
The composer was anxious to keep La traviata contemporary, to hold it up as a mirror to his audience, to portray the vices of … a bourgeois order that engenders prostitution but at the same time scorns it (aligre-cappuccino.fr) .
Then (as now) audiences, critics, and censors were often leery of operas set in the present, preferring to relegate them to the safe and sumptuous past, where the fashions are glamorous and the moral issues long since resolved.
It’s therefore not surprising that Verdi lost the battle to stage La traviata in contemporary clothing for its world première at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. Management, wary of the censors and of the audience response, insisted on moving the action back nearly 200 years to the reign of Louis XIV. In fact, it was not until 1906 that La traviata was set in the mid-19th century as Verdi had hoped – by which time the setting had become so quaintly distant as to lose much of its edge.
Verdi’s compassionate portrayal of an “immoral” woman startled and disturbed audiences and critics and triggered varying degrees of censorship.
Perhaps the most egregious example was an 1854 production in Rome. Censors bowdlerized the opera, changing its name to Violetta to eliminate any hint of her being a fallen woman. They made Violetta into a wealthy young orphan who simply liked to party; her sweetheart Alfredo never actually lived with her; the impediments to her marrying were her low birth and the fact that Alfredo had a pre-existing fiancée, who conveniently died shortly after their marriage. This indiscriminate tinkering enraged Verdi: The censors have spoiled the sense of the drama. They made La traviata pure and innocent … ruined all the situations, all the characters.
But despite moral outrage and discomfort with the mirror Verdi held up against social hypocrisy, audiences were seduced by the opera, its romantic ardour, its vivacious waltz rhythms, and the vivid, reflective grace, beauty, and variability of the music.
La traviata has taken its place as the most universally loved of all Verdi’s works, and indeed as one of the frequently performed of all operas, often jostling for top place with La bohème (another work with a consumptive heroine – Verdi was a pioneer with his on-stage depiction of death by TB, which, within 50 years, would become an operatic meme, featured in works by Leoncavallo, Offenbach, and Puccini).
In La traviata, art becomes strangely more real than life. The story began long ago with a real woman, whose character was novelized, polished, sugar-coated.
Then somehow, through his immense compassion, his rigorous dramatization of society’s complicity in her tragedy, and the alchemy of his music, Verdi made her timeless.
Notes from the Artistic Director
Verdi was hard at work in 1852 finishing Il trovatore when he began to compose La traviata. Its working title is worth noting: Amore e morte (Love and Death) , surely an umbrella designation for 19th c. opera tout court. The scores, so different in story and atmosphere, nonetheless show superficial musical similarities – evidence perhaps of the speed with which Verdi, inspired by a contemporary story – he wanted the performance to be in modern dress, but the same censors who objected to the title insisted it be moved back to the early 18th – completed this most loved of all his operas.
Dumas fils, whose play La dame aux camélias had premiered earlier the same year, reflected his own infatuation with the historical model for his (and then Verdi’s) heroine Marie Duplessis, who died at 23 from consumption, having been mistress to an impressive succession of nobility and prominent (always rich) men. Perhaps her greatest lover was Franz Liszt, who remained obsessed by her and commented that Dumas had to exert little effort to bring her sparkling personality to the stage.
One can guess that her story touched Verdi personally, given his long ‘unsanctified’ relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi, who suffered terribly from the moral opprobrium of her provincial neighbours, a parallel to Violetta. In all his work there is no more complete portrait of a woman, happy, then suffering in love and dying, nursing memories of mere weeks of bliss.
The role is a mountain, requiring a full vocal range and flexibility, endless stamina, and the capacity to project strong emotion as well as strength of character. While the young Alfredo hasn’t the same dimensionality, there is much touching ‘love’ music for him, as well as some wounded male anguish. Papa Germont represents a contrasting social order; it is difficult, given his provenance (a sort of pun on his great aria Di Provenza), not to feel for his dilemma, but I for one resent the intrusion of those priggish values, even while acknowledging we wouldn’t have this story without them.
That story is swiftly told, with great mastery of pace and contrast. The musical invention is unflagging, the score brimming with melody, many of the tunes having overt or transformed Waltz character (creating the musical ‘Paris’ with great economy, at least compared to Puccini’s all-out scene painting in Bohème). Verdi understood the voice – seemed indeed to be born knowing its expressive capacity from the great tradition he inherited – with true profundity. For performers, his many letters inveighing against bad or sloppy observation of his notation on the page make up a sobering call to musical discipline, to re-discovery.
In this, our fifth production of La traviata, we have sought to observe Verdi’s writing and honour his desire that the story remain real, not a dusty exercise in sentimentality. This special co-production has given you the chance to see what pooling resources can mean in terms of set and costumes. You should also know that, while James Westman has distinguished the casts in other cities, you are hearing both Colin Ainsworth and Lucia Cesaroni – reunited at last – sing their challenging roles for the first time.
Simone de Beauvoir
As she aims to achieve her freedom – freedom to love and to be loved – Violetta Valéry, our heroine, hastens her descent into hell. Used to being surrounded by admirers in a world of fantasies, she is rejected when she claims the right to live a respectable life.
In a world where we now try to acknowledge the injustices committed against women and where we attempt to repair the errors of the past, the drama of Violetta Valéry seems to resonate in a very contemporary way. Attempting to live a free woman’s life and even daring to challenge certain established conventions, Violetta will encounter obstacles that challenge her with the cruel rules of a too conservative society.
Wishing to portray this controversial character with a closer sensibility to our time, we’ve transformed the original courtesan into a music-hall celebrity. Artists, like courtesans, make people dream, but they are often prisoners of the image they project. Trying to run away from it, even to get closer to who they really are, can sometimes lead to tragedy – especially, I would add, for women whose roles in society were, and sometimes still remain, limited by centuries-old conventions.
Freely inspired by the audacious, sometimes scandalous, but always free-spirited artist Joséphine Baker, we’ve decided to move the action into Paris of the 1920s, with its joie de vivre and its glamorous lifestyle. After World War I, an insatiable taste for life led Europeans – and Parisians in particular – to an immoderate taste for money, luxury, pleasure, extravagance, arts … and women.
Some women became the personification of this movement, especially in the music hall milieu. In post-war Paris – the capital of all pleasures – they were considered the first modern-style celebrities; reporters followed them everywhere, and newspapers reported on their doings, including their pastimes and rivalries. Stars like Baker were admired and marginalized, just as Violetta Valéry is in La traviata. Worshiped in their own environment, these women could have easily been rejected when confronted by a more conventional segment of society. The sometimes shocking aspects of their lives, as well as the freedom they exercised in their life choices, may have kept them from being accepted as respectable women.
Sempre libera! Always free … even if the price to pay is death.
Soprano Lucia Cesaroni as Violetta was vocally brilliant, showing in Act 1 how the vivacious attitude of Violetta is all slightly fake…. Cesaroni’s coloratura … was beautiful and sparkling, bringing polish to an incredibly challenging role.
Alfredo was brilliantly portrayed by tenor Colin Ainsworth. Vocally flawless with effortless high notes, his character was sweet and sincere in his pursuit of Violetta, and his banked rage when he thinks he’s been betrayed was palpable and terrifying…. finally…his grief is absolutely heartbreaking…
The POV chorus deserves a huge shoutout for this production; the chorus numbers were incredibly precise, blended perfectly, and the choreography in the large number of dance routines they were given was brilliant. From the bullfights, to drunkenly stumbling across the stage in various states of undress, they were a constant source of fun and endlessly entertaining.
It’s Valentine’s Day and what better thing to do than watch poor, consumptive Violetta Valéry take a risky leap into love with young Alfredo Germont, only to be forced to leave him by his hidebound father, then tenderly reconcile with her beloved mere minutes before she expires. It’s not quite the happy ending demanded by any self-respecting Hollywood rom-com, but it’ll do – especially in a production as visually inspired and musically satisfying as Pacific Opera Victoria’s.
… nothing ultimately gets in the way of what is Verdi’s most intimate, tightest-plotted, and almost ridiculously hit-filled opera.
Need a bracing tonic to counteract Victoria’s recent snow dump? Pacific Opera Victoria’s La traviata might be just the prescription…
One star of the show is the stupendous stairway bisecting the stage area diagonally. The work of set and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk, it’s lavishly over-the-top – a testament to Violetta’s lifestyle as a wealthy courtesan with a heart of gold. Ditto for the mansion’s banks of shuttered windows, which look wonderful when lit up.
This roaring twenties approach to La traviata originally set in the 1700s, is tremendously successful…
Timothy Vernon, who has conducted this melodically rich opera many times, coaxed a fine performance from the Victoria Symphony. The orchestra captured the rollicking tempos of the party scenes without rushing them, as well as the fine nuances of poignant passages.
This is an entertaining, visually splendid production chockablock with familiar tunes.