LA TRAVIATA – Giuseppe Verdi

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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 morteLove 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.)

Marie Dup­lessis

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.

Giusep­pina Strepponi

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.

Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, the first Violetta

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.”


TRAVIATA Extras:

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.”

Young Alexan­der Dumans, fils

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.