Below are the program notes I wrote for the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Verdi’s La Traviata March 2 and 3, 2012.
La Traviata was Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th opera. Though the composer was dissatisfied with its initial run, the opera rapidly established itself as his most popular work. Indeed, it may be the most popular opera even written.
On the 4th of May 1852 Verdi signed a contract with the Venice’s Teatro La Fenice to write a new opera for Carnival season in 1853. This contract specified neither the opera’s librettist nor its subject. By August Verdi had picked Francesco Maria Piave (1810 –76) to write the libretto. Piave had already written six librettos for Verdi including Ernani, Macbeth, and Rigoletto.
Though Verdi had a librettist, his subject was still undecided. In February of the previous year Verdi and his companion Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-97) were in Paris. They almost certainly saw a performance of La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Written in 1849, it was an adaptation of Dumas’ novel of the same name published the previous year. It was not staged until 1852. The play like the novel was an enormous success.
The first sign that Verdi viewed the play as an opera was in September of 1852 when he wrote to the publisher Léon Escudier: “Please pardon me if I bother you by asking you to send me by post as quickly as possible under wraps the play La Dame aux camélias. The faster you do it the more I will be obliged to you.”
The Parisian publisher obliged and by the end of October Verdi had decided to make Dumas’ play into an opera. There was no discussion of Verdi purchasing the rights to the play, nor is there any evidence that Verdi ever obtained the rights to any of the contemporary plays he used as vehicles, nor that their authors were bothered by his borrowing their works without paying for them. Less than a half century later copyright was firmly established in Europe and composers like Puccini had to buy rights when they adapted a new play for the opera house.
The libretto and the music to what finally was named La Traviata were written in a few of months – November 1852 to February 1853. Remarkably, this interval overlapped the composition and staging of Il Trovatore . These two operas couldn’t be more different. The simultaneous composition of two such dissimilar masterpieces is without parallel in opera.
Il Trovatore is the last of the great bel canto operas of the first half of the 19th century. It is the triumph of the id. Everyone in it is crazy. They are totally unable to control their desires. Traviata, by contrast, is about self sacrifice. It is an intimate work that focuses entirely on one character; no other Verdi opera depends so much on its protagonist. Stylistically, it is a new departure for Italian opera. It was meant to deal with contemporary mores and issues and is a negative commentary on bourgeois morality. Verdi wanted it set in the present. This proved to be more than the management at La Fenice could tolerate. The opera was moved to around 1700; this time change persisted until the mid 19th century was safely in the past.
Dumas based his heroine Marguerite Gautier on the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis (1824–47) with whom he had had passionate love affair. In Verdi’s setting she becomes Violetta Valery. She also loses the coarseness she had in Dumas’ version. She also loses the camellias – a white one for each of the first 25 days of the month and red for the next five – except for the one she gives her new lover, Alfredo, at the end of the first act. She does retain the tuberculosis which killed Marie Duplessis in her early twenties.
There is an obvious connection between Giuseppina Strepponi and Verdi’s “sinner”; he repeatedly used this term when referring to Traviata a word that has no English equivalent. It means the woman who has been led astray. Violetta uses it to refer to herself in her great aria in the last scene – ‘Addio del passato’. ‘Ah, della traviata soridi al desio’ (‘Ah, smile on the woman who has strayed’ – she’s addressing God).
A diminished “moral” status was very important at the time of the opera. Treating a “fallen woman” with such sympathy and sensitivity was new to the theater – operatic or spoken. And she wasn’t just portrayed sympathetically, in Verdi’s version she is noble and heroic.
Strepponi met the standard definition of a fallen woman. To begin with she was an opera singer, a condition that in the mid 19th century denoted loose morals. She was first the mistress of a tenor and then of an impresario. These relationships resulted in three illegitimate children. As a singer she achieved great success. She appeared in Verdi’s first opera Oberto and in his third Nabucco. It was the latter that was his first triumph. Her voice began to fail well before she was 30 so she turned to teaching singing in Paris. But her stage achievements meant nothing to the citizens of Bussetto – Verdi’s hometown – where they lived for the rest of their lives. He was the town’s hero, but she was a notorious outsider.
Her relationship with Verdi began in Paris in 1847 five years after the composer’s first wife had died. Their two children had died shortly before their mother’s death. This loss left Verdi with lifelong grief and a tenacious grasp of the morose. Consider that the composer of some of the world’s greatest love music and a prolific correspondent left behind not a single love letter.
Giuseppina was a highly cultured woman. Verdi was fiercely loyal to her. He married her in 1859. Why so long an interval between cohabitation and marriage? It likely wasn’t Verdi who hesitated; he was indifferent to the disapproval that their irregular arrangement caused in Bussetto. It appears that the reluctance to marry was Giuseppina’s. She loved Dumas’ novel and play. She doubtless saw similarities between herself and Violetta and didn’t consider herself worthy of Verdi. Unlike her future husband she was a devout Catholic and a strong believer. Her religious views probably made her feel that she would be an unsatisfactory wife for a great man.
She wrote Verdi an extraordinarily moving letter: “I am not worthy of you; and the love which you have for me is a gift, a balm to a heart which is many times very sad under its apparent happiness. Continue to love me, even after death, when I present myself before Divine Justice rich with your love and your prayers, oh my redeemer!” It’s easy to grasp the attraction that Violetta had to her and to Verdi.
Verdi was very unhappy with the cast that La Fenice had hired for the premiere of La Traviata. He was particularly dissatisfied with the prima donna Fanny Salvini-Donatelli. He called the first performance a “fiasco” before it occurred. After the first performance he wrote: “La Traviata was a fiasco; my fault or the singers? Time alone will tell.” The press accounts of the first performance were actually pretty good and Salvini-Donatelli got the best notices. But Verdi remained dissatisfied.
Following the Venice run he withdrew the opera, made revisions, and assembled a new and better cast for a mounting of the work in May of 1854. The city was still Venice, but the location was the Teatro San Benedetto. This staging was an unqualified success. By the end of 1858 there had been 143 separate productions in Italy alone and an additional 57 abroad.
Over the succeeding century and a half Verdi’s noble sinner has been performed virtually every day in some part of the world. La Traviata is that rare thing, an undying masterpiece that everyone loves. About 25 years later Verdi was asked what his best opera was. He said as musician he’d pick Rigoletto, but from the viewpoint of the audience it was La Traviata. The audience has yet to disagree with his verdict.