“La Traviata is Verdi’s most intimate music drama; and the feelings it portrays are those of individual humanity down the ages. The abiding glory of this opera is that it says fundamental things in a simple, direct way yet with a wealth of poetic suggestion.”
—Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Volume 2
La Traviata is such an enormously well known opera, so much a part of the experience of every opera-goer, that it seems inconceivable it very nearly was not written at all.
In January 1852, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) was approached by the theater La Fenice in Venice to compose a new opera. His most recent work, Rigoletto (1851), had just had an enormously successful première in the theater, which had also premiered Ernani (1844) and Attila (1846). Verdi was interested, but warned he couldn’t proceed in picking a subject and writing the opera, until he knew whom the singers would be. By May, Verdi signed a contract obligating him to have the new opera ready for performance by the first Saturday of March, 1853. The singers were to be tenor Lodovico Graziani and baritone Felice Varesi. As for the soprano, Verdi had suggested several, none of whom were available. The theater finally engaged Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, and a clause in Verdi’s contract said he would make up his mind about using her in his new opera after she made her debut with the company, but before January 15th, 1853.
Verdi began his usual procedure of considering and rejecting possible subjects for his opera — all the while working on Il Trovatore for the Teatro Apollo in Rome. Eventually Trovatore would have its première on January 19th, 1853; La Traviata’s première would be only a few weeks later, on March 6th. The fact that Verdi was simultaneously composing music for two such different operas is nothing less than a miracle.
The librettist was to be Francesco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876), a poet, proofreader and editor associated with La Fenice who, as was the custom of the day, often functioned as stage director as well as supplying librettos. He already had worked with Verdi on several operas, including Ernani, Macbeth and Rigoletto, and would continue through Simone Boccanegra and La Forza del Destino. Piave must have had the patience of a saint, because Verdi’s numerous letters to him often become downright abusive and sadistic. (While working on Macbeth Verdi once threatened to castrate Piave if he didn’t immediately provide the composer with exactly what he wanted.)
By July 1853 Verdi was complaining Piave hadn’t yet come up with an original and provocative subject for their new opera. “It’s easy to find common place subjects,” Verdi wrote at the time, “I can find fifty of them an hour. But it is difficult, very, very difficult, to find one that has all the qualities needed to make an impact, and that is also original and provocative.”
By late September the deadline for the new libretto had past, Verdi was still looking for a subject, and Piave was dispatched to Verdi’s home in Sant’Agata to try and speed up the process. Since Piave and Verdi were in the same house — and therefore we have no letters between them during that period — details of what happened next are missing. We do know a subject was selected, though what it was remains a mystery. Piave wrote the entire libretto, only to have Verdi abruptly change his mind at the last minute, because he had decided on La Dame aux camélias instead. (One wonders, what was this opera we almost had instead of La Traviata?) Poet and composer started all over and roughed out the new libretto in five days. Under the title Amore e morte—Love and Death—it was sent to Venice to be approved by the censors. (Undoubtedly the protracted trials Verdi and Piave had recently suffered at the hands of the Venetian censors over Rigoletto, made them extra skittish about their new subject matter.)
It was a daring proposition to write on opera on such a contemporary subject. The novel, by Alexander Dumas fils, La Dame aux camélias, was published in 1848, only a few months after the death of Alphonsine (Marie) Duplessis, the woman on whom Dumas modeled Marguerite Gautier (see below). The book was so overwhelmingly successful Dumas promptly turned it into a play, but it couldn’t get it staged until February 2nd, 1852, at the Théâtre du Vaudeville where it was seen by Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, the woman who would later become his second wife. Verdi’s opera premiered only 13 months later.
Today we’re largely inured to the shock-value La Traviata had for its first audiences. But it’s safe to assume a large section of the public would have agreed with the baritone Felice Varesi, who created the role of the elder Germont, when he groused “the main character is a kept woman or rather a common whore of our own time who died in Paris not very long ago.” Never mind that she was not a streetwalker but a member of the demimondaine, living a luxurious life quite beyond the reach of many of the opera goers themselves. Never mind the hypocrisy of the Victorian world’s male who sneered at her and demeaned her during the day while actively pursuing her favors at night. Yet Verdi and Piave treated her not as a curiosity but with the greatest sympathy, as a human being to be admired, and in the process they exposed the sham of much of the public “virtue” of their time.
Another shocking aspect of Traviata was in frankly depicting tuberculosis on stage. Later operas such as The Tales of Hoffmann and La Bohème would also have consumptive characters, but in 1853 it still raised eyebrows. In January Verdi wrote his friend Cesare De Sanctis: “In Venice I am doing La Dame aux camélias, which will perhaps be called Traviata. A subject from our own time. 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. Everyone protested when I put a hunch-back on stage. Well, I was happy to compose Rigoletto.”
Among the reasons Verdi must have had for turning so suddenly to La Dame aux camélias after Piave had finished the libretto for another opera, we cannot discount a certain timely emotional resonance it had with him personally. While it’s true that no artist can create anything enduring without having a very personal response to the work, Traviata must have hit very close to home, indeed, with the composer.
Verdi’s beloved first wife had died in 1840, their two young children preceding her in death. When Nabucco, the opera that made Verdi’s name, premiered at La Scala in 1842, its soprano was Giuseppina Strepponi, an early, strong supporter of the young composer. She was one of the great singers of her day, then at the premature end of her career. The following year she became his mistress, and five years later they began living together openly in Paris. She would become his wife in 1859, but in the early 1850s they were being harassed by their neighbors, as well as Verdi’s relatives, in Busseto and Sant’Agata — largely stemming from the (then unmarried) Strepponi’s “tarnished” reputation.
In cosmopolitan Paris, Strepponi was respected as a cultured, vibrant woman who had enjoyed a splendid career on the opera stage. The personal sacrifices she had made during her career were shrugged off, and her alliance with Verdi was accepted. But provincial Busseto and Sant’Agata saw her “as a 34-year-old theatrical whore whose pregnancies had been there for all to see, in full view, on stage. And who knew where her hapless children were?” as Mary Jane Phillips-Matz puts it. “Later Strepponi recalled the fury of insults that were shouted up from the street. Stones were thrown through the windows. Verdi was accused of being an atheist, even as his father kept going to church twice a day and the parish priest (one of the old enemies from his youth) tried to bring his household into line.”
Phillips-Matz goes on to warn: “It would be a great mistake to equate any of the characters in La Dame aux camélias directly with Verdi, Strepponi, [or Verdi’s father or his patron and father-in-law], but the general tone and feeling of the opera, its intensely personal and compassionate atmosphere, its setting as a family drama, is not unlike the very situation Verdi lived through just before he wrote it.”
Though Verdi believed passionately in his opera, he saw disaster on the horizon for its first performance at La Fenice. For one thing, the theater management got cold feet and insisted on moving the opera’s time period from the contemporary 1850s to the 1700s, the era of Louis XIV. This despite the fact Dumas’s play was being given in Venice at the very time Verdi’s opera, based on that play, was being given.
Verdi also realized the cast was not up to the work. The tenor was ill and hoarse. The baritone, Varesi was not only at the end of his career and in waning voice, he did not understand the role of the elder Germont which did not give him any heroic arias with which he had made such a success in Rigoletto and Macbeth. (Verdi “did not know how to use the gifts of the artists at his disposal” Varesi complained to a newspaper.) At the dress rehearsal Verdi criticized the singers to their faces, which can not have helped their confidence.
Much has been made of the fact the soprano Salvini-Donatelli was plump, causing the first audience to laugh at the idea she was dying of consumption. But, in fact, she was well-applauded for her arias, especially the brilliance of her cabaletta singing in Act I. The audience also applauded so long after the Act I prelude that Verdi had to come out and take a bow — as he had to do after the brindisi, the love duet, and at the conclusion of the first act. It was only with Act II that the audience began losing interest, largely because — said one newspaper reviewer — the poor quality of the singers kept the audience from understanding the true spirit of Verdi’s work.
But Act II is the core of the opera. If the crucial relationship between Violetta and Alfredo’s father isn’t conveyed to the audience, we end up not understanding either character, and are left with only the outer shell of the opera.
After running for nine or ten performances (depending on whom one believes), and doing modestly well at the La Fenice box office, Traviata finished its initial run. Verdi, who was busy telling everyone it had been “a fiasco” (which isn’t quite true) refused to let other theaters have the opera. But a year later, on May 6th, 1854, after Verdi reworked part of the score (rather more than he let on he had, according to some historians), La Traviata was again given in Venice, at a different theater and with a different cast. It was a hit. “Then it was a fiasco; now it has created a furor. Draw your own conclusions,” Verdi wrote to a friend.
“La Traviata is an opera in which all of Verdi’s finest qualities are to be perceived: his technical mastery, his clarity, his humanity, his psychological penetration, his unerring taste,” writes Charles Osborne. “It was that great transmogrifier, Proust, who said that in La Traviata Verdi had lifted La Dame aux camélias into the realm of art.”
Armand’s description of Marguerite at their first meeting, in Dumas’s novel La Dame aux camellias:
“I was full of indulgence for her life, full of admiration for her beauty. The proof of disinterestedness that she gave in not accepting a rich and fashionable young man, ready to waste all his money upon her, excused her in my eyes for all her faults in the past.
“There was a kind of candor in this woman. You could see she was still in the virginity of vice. Her firm walk, her supple figure, her rosy, open nostrils, her large eyes, slightly tinged with blue, indicated one of those ardent natures which shed around them a sort of voluptuous perfume, like Eastern vials, which, close them as tightly as you will, still let some of their perfume escape. Finally, whether it was simple nature or breath of fever, there passed from time to time in the eyes of this woman a glimmer of desire, giving promise of a very heaven for one whom she should love. But those who had loved Marguerite were not to be counted, nor those whom she had loved.
“In this girl there was at once a virgin whom a mere nothing had turned into a courtesan, and the courtesan whom a mere nothing would have turned into the most loving and the purest of virgins. Marguerite had still pride and independence, two sentiments which, if they are wounded, can be the equivalent of a sense of shame.”
The real-life model for Violetta:
Marguerite Gauthier, the heroine of Alexander Dumas’s novel and play (and, by extension, of Verdi’s La Traviata), was drawn from real life. Alphonsine (she preferred to be called Marie) Duplessis was one of the most celebrated demimondaines of her day. Born in Normandy in 1824, she seems to have arrived in Paris about the age of 15, first working as a shop assistant. Duplessis had far more going for her than mere physical beauty, though she was often referred to as “a Saxe figurine.” Either from birth, or through remarkably quick study, she had a grace and charm that was truly aristocratic. She had a quick mind, was well-read, interested in the arts, and was soon installed in a luxurious apartment in rue Madeleine with her own carriage and horses. She was given the title of duchess by Louis-Philippe (at the urging of a powerful member of the king’s entourage), so she could attend court balls and royal weddings. Her lovers included the Duc de Guise and Franz Liszt, who, after her death, wrote, “She was the first woman I ever loved. If I had been in Paris when la Duplessis was ill, I would have tried to save her at any price, for hers was truly an exquisite nature, and what is generally described (perhaps accurately) as corruption, never touched her heart. I felt for her a somber and elegiac attachment, which, without her knowing it, put me in the vein of poetry and music.”
Dumas was introduced to her in 1844. One day while she was entertaining friends, she began coughing up blood and went into her bedroom. Dumas followed, and his genuine concern so moved her that she allowed the young man to become one of her lovers. He could not afford to provide the luxuries she was used to, so she continued to entertain other men. The affair, though memorable, was brief. In 1846, in London, she signed a marriage contract with the Comte Edouard de Perregaux, a member of the Jockey Club. The couple often went their own ways, and Duplessis visited a number of spas, trying to cure her consumption — without success. She died in her Paris apartment in February 1847 — age 23.
This article originally appeared in the Aspen Opera Theater program book.