Love: The Ecstasy and The Burden
by Noel Morris
Last year, there were 867 performances of La traviata worldwide. It was by far the most performed opera. And with ravishing music amplifying a powerful, character-driven story, it’s no surprise. A hundred years ago, audiences most likely viewed Violetta Valéry as a disreputable woman who was curiously and uncomfortably compelling. For them, La traviata was a tale of redemption. Today, people admire Violetta. She has fortitude and an astonishingly benevolent spirit in the face of a nauseatingly hypocritical and unequal world. Viewed through either cultural lens, La traviata takes us into the human heart to pose some unsettling questions.
Anyone who’s read a Jane Austen novel or been captivated by “Downton Abbey” knows the dilemma of daughters born into wealthy families (at least until the mid-20th century). Due to the custom of primogeniture, girls were forbidden from inheriting money and property. They were not schooled to have a profession, but were encouraged to become “accomplished” by having a “thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages,” to quote Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Taking Austen’s point a step further, these so-called accomplished young woman were, in essence, groomed to “recommend themselves to the other sex.” For them, marriage was as much about securing a future, as it was about romance. Alternatives to married life included working as a governess or entering a convent.
Therein lies the dilemma of La traviata. One option ruins Violetta; the other ruins a girl we never meet (Alfredo’s sister). Of course, Giorgio Germont protects his own child. But make no mistake, both girls have attached their futures to men of means; it’s just that one of them would never be permitted to marry into a respectable family. In a cruel plot twist, La traviata turns the tables on Violetta. Alfredo has not yet come into his fortune— so they exhaust hers.
Throughout 19th-century France, affluent members of the middle class asserted claims to the privileges and lifestyle of the nobility. In 1855, the playwright Alexandre Dumas fils coined the term demimonde, “half world,” (in opposition to le beau monde—high society), to describe a less-than-respectable urban subculture in which powerful men lavished money, jewels, horses, and even houses upon glamorous female companions. While the French courtesan is often described as a “glorified prostitute,” it’s worth taking a closer look.
The word “courtesan” dates back to the 16th century and refers to ladies of the court. Even then, these unmarried women had something of a noble bearing and education, which made them more compatible with the influential men they seduced. In the demimonde, it became an enterprise for the courtesan to not only master bedroom techniques, but to acquire foreign language skills, knowledge of politics and world events, and to supercharge Paris nightlife. (Proper wives stayed home.) The French courtesan hosted the most talked-about parties in town. And through their enterprise, could amass a fortune to sustain themselves through retirement.
Meet the Parents
Act I of La traviata delivers on so many levels: it has an infectious drinking song, a dazzling ode to untrammeled moxie, and a serenade to melt your heart (and Violetta’s). After the debauchery of Act I, the mood in Act II turns on a dime with the entrance of Giorgio Germont (if you ever attended a party that abruptly ended with the arrival of someone’s parents, this will look familiar). At first, Violetta opposes him—notice the way her music sounds so forbidding. But he wears her down until Verdi signals her acquiescence with a gut-wrenching duet.
This duet is followed by one of the most heartbreaking farewells in all of opera. It’s a scene titled “Violetta,” scored with such elegance and beauty, you could almost miss the wallop that’s coming. In fact, Alfredo does miss it. (How often are we unaware when we’re saying our last goodbye?) At that moment, tremolos across the strings and timpani swell around a theme which echoes the overture. Violetta sings: “Love me, Alfredo, love me as much as I love you. Goodbye!” And in a wisp, their lives are changed forever.
One reason La traviata has currency in our own time is that it exposes a classic struggle between the establishment and the “other.” Verdi, himself, was constantly rubbing against Italian censors. In fact, they pressured him to change the name of this opera from Amore e morte (Love and Death) to the more moralistic La traviata, which comes from the Italian verb traviare (to lead astray).
Verdi complied. Nevertheless, there is something seditious about this opera. Giorgio Germont is a meaty and believable father figure. When he asserts his right, as he sees it, to separate the worthy from the unworthy, he uses a playbook that could have come right out of 2019. He slut-shames Violetta for living in sin while deflecting blame from himself: “Young lady,” he sings, “it is God who inspires these words on a father’s lips”—of course, the 1853 audiences knew that no bourgeois gentleman would have consented to a marriage between Alfredo and Violetta. At the same time, Germont is not immune to Violetta’s suffering, which casts him not in a compassionate light—but a cowardly one.
Both Giuseppe Verdi and the man who authored this story had reason to sympathize with Violetta. Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the man who wrote The Three Musketeers) was born out of wedlock and was bullied as a bastard child. A youthful affair with a courtesan inspired young Dumas to write the novel and stage play La dame aux camélias, which served as a basis for La traviata. Like Violetta, Dumas’s real-life courtesan lover, Marie Duplessis, succumbed to consumption at the age of 23.
In 1843, Verdi, who had suffered the loss of his wife and two children, began living with a famous soprano. A scandalous free spirit, Giuseppina Strepponi had her own money, and a brood of children born out of wedlock. When Verdi brought her to live in his hometown of Busseto, she was publicly shunned, causing great distress for the couple. In a letter to the father of his deceased wife, Verdi raged: “Who has the right to condemn us? . . . in my house she is entitled to as much respect, or more, as I am myself, and no one is allowed to forget this for any reason whatsoever; she has every right to it, as much for her dignity as for her intelligence and her unfailing graciousness to others.”
Verdi saw Dumas’s play in 1852. La traviata followed in 1853. Based on a libretto by the composer’s longtime writing partner, Francesco Maria Piave, it was intended to be a contemporary story. “No wigs,” Verdi insisted, although he was overruled by local censors. (In their minds, the scandalous nature of the story required more distance; thus, the first productions were set—with powdered wigs—during the era of Louis XIV, ca. 1700.) The opera’s first run at La Fenice in Venice was not successful. Verdi tweaked the score and reintroduced La traviata the following year. In spite of multiple allowances made to censors across Europe, the show was a hit. Giuseppe and Giuseppina cohabited until 1859 when they finally married.
La traviata opens April 27th at Cobb Energy Centre
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