Verdi, G.

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO — Verdi’s Giant Canvas



It would be dif­fi­cult to find anoth­er major Ver­di opera that has been so mis­treat­ed — and so mis­un­der­stood — through the years as has La Forza del Des­ti­no. Not that long ago, entire scenes were either cut entire­ly, or trun­cat­ed almost beyond recog­ni­tion. Some­times they were rearranged in an attempt to “improve” the sup­pos­ed­ly inco­her­ent libret­to. Char­ac­ters whom the com­pos­er admired were reduced to a few lines, or elim­i­nat­ed entire­ly. Even though such once-rou­tine man­gling of Forza is (thank­ful­ly) rarely encoun­tered in major the­aters today, for many oper­a­go­ers the work remains more than slight­ly taint­ed by the idea that Ver­di, some­how, got conned into writ­ing some won­der­ful music for an absurd, unwieldy dra­ma that prob­a­bly should have been left undis­turbed on 19th-cen­tu­ry library shelves.

That view, though com­mon, is regret­tably short­sight­ed. It is true that if ever a major Ver­di work dis­re­gard­ed the Aris­totelian dra­mat­ic pre­cepts of uni­ty of time, place and action it is La Forza del Des­ti­no. Aris­to­tle thought a dra­ma should take place with­in a 24-hour peri­od. A pro­duc­tion book from 1862, the year of Forza’s pre­mière, and thought to be the work of the opera’s libret­tist, Francesco Maria Piave, points out “about 18 months pass between the first and sec­ond acts; sev­er­al years between the sec­ond and third; more than five years between the third and fourth.” Far from tak­ing place in a sin­gle loca­tion, Forza blithe­ly trav­els through Spain and Italy, encom­pass­ing numer­ous set­tings such as aris­to­crat­ic homes, tacky inns, bat­tle­fields, wood­lands, a monastery and a cave in the side of a moun­tain. And as for stick­ing with one cen­tral sto­ry and elim­i­nat­ing any action not rel­e­vant to the plot — well, that’s the antithe­sis of Forza’s dra­ma.

But far from being the major weak­ness of Forza, the great sprawl­ing nature of the libret­to with its cast of hun­dreds and improb­a­ble dra­mat­ic coin­ci­dences is — in fact — pre­cise­ly its strongest point. In Forza Ver­di paints on a gigan­tic can­vas, telling the sto­ry of human­i­ty itself. Scenes of aris­to­crat­ic hon­or, all-con­sum­ing love and wrench­ing pri­vate anguish are cheeky by jowl with scenes of squab­bling peas­ants and drunk­en soldiers.

Some writ­ers have com­pared the vast sweep of Forza with Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Per­haps the best descrip­tion, how­ev­er, is that La Forza del Des­ti­no is Shake­speare­an. In fact, William Weaver has termed it “Verdi’s most Shake­speare­an opera. Shake­speare­an, that is, in Verdi’s sense: a work of great vari­ety, vast scope, jux­ta­pos­ing com­ic and trag­ic, employ­ing a num­ber of unusu­al char­ac­ters, all sharply defined, even if only briefly seen and heard. Though the opera is flawed (as Ver­di him­self real­ized), it is per­haps Verdi’s bold­est attempt to por­tray an entire, com­plex, con­tra­dic­to­ry world.”

Ver­di in Rus­sia for FORZA­’s première.

Shake­speare was a drama­tist Ver­di both loved and admired. He kept Ital­ian trans­la­tions of Shakespeare’s plays beside his bed, and the high­est com­pli­ment he could pay a char­ac­ter was that it was “wor­thy of Shake­speare.” When he wrote La Forza del Des­ti­no, his first opera based on a Shake­speare play—Mac­beth—was over a decade old. His two final mas­ter­pieces, both drawn from Shake­speare—Otel­lo and Fal­staff—were decades in the future. His most recent opera, Un Bal­lo in Maschera, had been a suc­cess at its pre­mier in Rome in 1859. It had brought to a close an aston­ish­ing decade which was ush­ered in by Verdi’s remark­able trio of Rigo­let­to, Il Trova­tore, and La Travi­a­ta; found him writ­ing his first French grand opera Les Vêpres Sicilennes; then return­ing to Venice (scene of the pre­miers of Rigo­let­to and Travi­a­ta) with Simon Boc­cane­gra in 1857.

Ver­di was the undis­put­ed lead­ing com­pos­er of Ital­ian opera of the day. He had shown he was a mas­ter of the bel can­to tra­di­tion that he was remold­ing in new ways to express char­ac­ter and dra­ma with increased vivid­ness and truth. In short, Ver­di was at the height of his pow­ers thus far and not at all inclined to sim­ply com­pose for the sake of com­pos­ing.  Instead, after Bal­lo’s pre­mier, Ver­di essen­tial­ly retired from the the­ater, turn­ing down numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to write new operas in favor of ful­fill­ing his duties as a (reluc­tant) mem­ber of Italy’s new par­lia­ment and liv­ing the life of a coun­try farmer, mak­ing repairs on his prop­er­ty and dis­cour­ag­ing visitors.

Under these cir­cum­stances, it would be absurd to think Ver­di was some­how fina­gled into set­ting a dra­ma with which he was not ful­ly in sym­pa­thy. Ver­di explained part of the attrac­tion the sub­ject had for him in a let­ter: “The play is pow­er­ful, unusu­al and extreme­ly vast. I like it immense­ly.” But just because it offered a vast panora­ma for Ver­di does not mean he was care­less about the con­struc­tion of the libret­to. Far from it. He harangued Piave repeat­ed­ly, empha­siz­ing, “The style must be tight­ened up. The poet­ry can and must say all that the prose says, and in half the words.”

Libret­tist Piave

By con­ven­tion­al stan­dards it could, indeed, seem to be some­thing of a prob­lem to have a hero­ine, Leono­ra, with whom the audi­ence falls in love in the open­ing scene, only to have her dis­ap­pear at the end of act two and not reap­pear until the opera’s last scene. But Leono­ra is not the sub­ject of the opera. Nei­ther is her lover, Don Alvaro, though the Span­ish play by Angel de Saave­dra, Duke of Rivas, on which the opera is based is enti­tled Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino. Instead. Ver­di took the play’s sub­ti­tle and called his opera La Forza del Des­ti­no. The Force of Des­tiny. And to empha­size his opera is not only about the tra­vails of the Cala­tra­va fam­i­ly, he bor­rowed a scene from Schiller’s Wal­len­steins Lager which adds even more to the already bub­bling mix of gyp­sies, sol­diers, dis­rep­utable fri­ars and peddlers.

Verdi’s opera is not about indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, but about the way these char­ac­ters react to the work­ings of fate, or des­tiny. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is fate itself, and the way it affects all seg­ments of soci­ety, from the high­est to the low­est. And des­tiny, by its very nature, can­not be con­fined to a nice tidy set of uni­ties. Des­tiny runs its own course.

Which is one rea­son Ver­di empha­sized the impor­tance of char­ac­ters we some­times (mis­tak­en­ly) regard as “minor.” “Don’t for­get you need three artists who are com­plete­ly at ease on stage to do Preziosil­la, Meli­tone and Tra­bu­co,” Ver­di wrote to his pub­lish­er. “Their scenes are com­e­dy, pure com­e­dy. There­fore good dic­tion and an easy stage man­ner. See to that.”

And that sug­gests anoth­er rea­son we are per­haps a bit uncom­fort­able with La Forza del Des­ti­no: its assump­tion of the cen­tral role of fate or des­tiny in human exis­tence.  “Art,” W. H. Auden once observed, “is not Mag­ic, i.e., a means by which the artist com­mu­ni­cates or arous­es his feel­ings in oth­ers, but a mir­ror in which they may become con­scious of what their own feel­ings real­ly are: its prop­er effect, in fact, is disenchanting.”

Our soci­ety preach­es an indi­vid­ual is respon­si­ble for the out­come of his or her own life. If you real­ly work hard, you’ll be reward­ed. If you sac­ri­fice plea­sure now, you’ll reap div­i­dends lat­er on.  Yet, on the bound­aries of our lives — usu­al­ly pushed away from our dai­ly rou­tines — we all know there are excep­tions. From great nat­ur­al dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na to doing some­thing noble that back­fires and brings calami­ty.  In act one of Forza Don Alvaro does some­thing noble. He sur­ren­ders to Leonora’s father by throw­ing down his pis­tol, only to have it acci­den­tal­ly go off, kill the Mar­quis di Cala­tra­va, and set in motion a cycle of vengeance, death and grief that lasts for years.

A leg­endary per­for­mance of FORZA.

Oh please!” groans the mod­ern oper­a­go­er. “That is so unre­al­is­tic.” But is it? Acci­den­tal deaths (some from gun shots) are so com­mon we sel­dom both­er to trace their effects on the fam­i­lies involved. And in a larg­er sense, we all know sto­ries about a per­son who is caught in traf­fic, thus miss­ing a flight, only to not be on board an air­plane that crash­es. Or the reverse. How many of us, years lat­er, are so thank­ful we didn’t get a job we were des­per­ate for at the time; or who are annoyed we’ve got­ten lost in an unfa­mil­iar city, only to turn the cor­ner and meet a per­son who will bless our lives for years.

This qual­i­ty is depict­ed in the tarot by the Wheel of For­tune, num­ber 10 of the major arcane. “The Wheel does not become vis­i­ble until we step away from it,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Sev­en­ty-eight Degrees of Wis­dom, Part I.  “When we are involved in it, we see only the events imme­di­ate­ly before and behind us; the dai­ly con­cerns our egos find so impor­tant. When we with­draw we can see the whole pat­tern. Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly we can view this vision as an assess­ment a per­son makes of where his or her life has gone and where it is going. On a deep­er lev­el, the vision remains mys­te­ri­ous and sym­bol­ic. We can see what we have made of our par­tic­u­lar lives, but fate remains a mys­tery.… The impor­tant thing about change is our reac­tion [to it]. Do we use it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty and find some mean­ing and val­ue in it? The end of a love affair, despite its pain, can give greater self-knowl­edge. It can open the way to a new awareness.”

This is not the sub­ject mat­ter we usu­al­ly asso­ciate with an opera by Giuseppe Ver­di. But Julian Bud­den got it exact­ly right when he said Forza was “an opera whose only fault is that it is too rich in ideas. It is a fault on the right side.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Feb­ru­ary 2006.



Through­out his long life, Giuseppe Ver­di (1813 – 1901) seemed to have a gut instinct about exact­ly which char­ac­ter or dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion would best suit his opera-com­pos­ing abil­i­ties. So it is not sur­pris­ing that when he read Vic­tor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The king’s amuse­ment), Ver­di real­ized its aston­ish­ing poten­tial. The dis­cov­ery of a play that fired his imag­i­na­tion could not have come at a bet­ter time, since he had just been com­mis­sioned by Teatro la Fenice in Venice to write an opera to be pre­miered ear­ly in 1851.

In April 1850 Ver­di wrote his libret­tist, Fran­cis­co Maria Piave (1810 – 1876): “I have in mind a sub­ject that would be one of the great­est cre­ations of the mod­ern the­ater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? They allowed Ernani, they might even allow us to do this and at least there are no con­spir­a­cies in it. Have a try! The sub­ject is grand, immense and there’s a char­ac­ter in it who is one of the great­est cre­ations that the the­ater of all coun­tries and all times can boast. The sub­ject is Le roi s’amuse and the char­ac­ter I’m speak­ing about is Triboulet.

PS: As soon as you get this let­ter, put on your skates; run about the city and find some­one of influ­ence to get us per­mis­sion to do Le roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give your­self a good shake; do it at once. I shall expect you at Bus­se­to [Verdi’s home], but not now, after they’ve agreed to the subject.”

The let­ter is the first time Ver­di men­tions his desire to write what would become Rigo­let­to—one of the great­est of all Ital­ian operas — and it is an extreme­ly telling let­ter in many ways. First of all, no soon­er does Ver­di express enthu­si­asm for the sub­ject than he adds, “if the police will allow it.” Ver­di knew exact­ly what he would be up against, and so he deft­ly shift­ed the almost impos­si­ble task of slip­ping the sub­ject mat­ter past the cen­sor onto the shoul­ders of his poor librettist.

Vic­tor Hugo in 1853

Vic­tor Hugo’s play had been giv­en in Paris in Novem­ber 1832 when it was sus­pend­ed by the gov­ern­ment after a sin­gle per­for­mance. Hugo plead­ed his case before the Tri­bunal de Com­merce but to no avail. The play was pub­lished, but it was not per­formed again in Paris until 1882 — a fact that dou­bly dis­pleased the play­wright since Verdi’s opera, based on the play, was giv­en over 100 times dur­ing its first sea­son in the very city that con­tin­ued to ban Le roi s’amuse.

At the time, Venice and much of north­ern Italy was in the hands of the Aus­tri­ans, who were deeply fear­ful of the attempts to uni­fy Italy and were well aware of Verdi’s patri­ot­ic stance. His very name had become an ana­gram, an open secret used to inflame the pub­lic toward inde­pen­dence and uni­fi­ca­tion. “Viva VERDI” was scrawled on walls, paint­ed on ban­ners, shout­ed by crowds — osten­si­bly in hon­or of the increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar com­pos­er. But “VERDI” also stood for Vitto­rio Emmanuele, Re dItalia (Vit­to­rio Emmanuel, King of Italy, mean­ing a free, uni­fied Italy, not just King of Sar­dinia as he was at the time). Obvi­ous­ly any­thing that might be inflam­ma­to­ry, as defined by the increas­ing­ly uneasy occu­py­ing Aus­tri­ans, would be banned.

Also telling in that first let­ter to Piave on the sub­ject of their new opera was Verdi’s sin­gling out the char­ac­ter of Tri­boulet, who even­tu­al­ly would be named Rigo­let­to. In anoth­er let­ter Ver­di referred to Tri­boulet as “a cre­ation wor­thy of Shake­speare,” which was the high­est praise Ver­di could give.

Ver­di had first used Piave as a libret­tist on Ernani, which pre­miered in Venice in 1844, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with him reg­u­lar­ly there­after. Piave sup­plied the com­pos­er with ten libret­tos in all, includ­ing Mac­beth, Travi­a­ta, Simon Boc­cane­gra and La forza del des­ti­no, in addi­tion to Rigo­let­to. If Piave was not a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­tin­guished writer on his own, he took direc­tion well, put up with Verdi’s almost con­stant abuse, was to all accounts extra­or­di­nar­i­ly charm­ing, and had numer­ous influ­en­tial friends in high places. He was prompt­ly assured there would be no dif­fi­cul­ty with La Fenice pre­sent­ing an opera based on Le roi s’amuse, so the two men set to work.

Libret­tist Piave

But of course there would be dif­fi­cul­ty — a great deal of it. In the play the vil­lain is a king, Fran­cis I of France, whose licen­tious­ness is plain­ly depict­ed, and the hero is a hunch­back com­mon­er, a jester in the court. Fur­ther­more, in the final scene a corpse is dis­played on stage in a sack. Both in France and Ger­many the play was derid­ed for its “obscen­i­ty.” The Aus­tri­an cen­sors were so offend­ed by Piave’s libret­to they sim­ply washed their hands of the whole mat­ter in a let­ter to the direc­tors of La Fenice: “His Excel­len­cy the Mil­i­tary Gov­er­nor Cheva­lier Gorzkowski…directs me to com­mu­ni­cate to you his pro­found regret that the poet Piave and the cel­e­brat­ed mae­stro Ver­di should not have cho­sen a more wor­thy vehi­cle to dis­play their tal­ents than the revolt­ing immoral­i­ty and obscene triv­i­al­i­ty of the libret­to of La maledi­zione [as the opera was then called].

His above-men­tioned Excel­len­cy has decid­ed the per­for­mance shall be absolute­ly for­bid­den, and wish­es me at the same time to request you not make fur­ther inquiries in the matter.”

Ver­di, how­ev­er, was not about to with­draw the project. He answered the objec­tions of the Aus­tri­an over­lords one by one, final­ly respond­ing to the desire that Tri­boulet should not be ugly or hunchbacked.

A hunch­back who sings? Why not?” Ver­di wrote to the the­ater direc­tors. “Will it be effec­tive? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, nei­ther, I repeat, does the per­son who sug­gest­ed the change. To me there is some­thing real­ly fine in rep­re­sent­ing on stage this char­ac­ter out­ward­ly so ugly and ridicu­lous, inward­ly so impas­sioned and full of love. I chose the sub­ject pre­cise­ly because of those qual­i­ties, and if these orig­i­nal fea­tures are removed I can­not write the music.…I tell you frankly that, good or bad, my music is not just writ­ten casu­al­ly for any sit­u­a­tion; I try to give it a char­ac­ter appro­pri­ate to the drama.”

Giuseppe Berto­ja’s pre­mière stage set for the sec­ond scene.

In Rigo­let­to Ver­di did just that — he wrote pow­er­ful, evoca­tive music that describes each of the char­ac­ters so per­fect­ly it would be laugh­able to sug­gest the same music be sung by the watered-down, col­or­less char­ac­ters sug­gest­ed by the cen­sors. Final­ly Ver­di, Piave, and the La Fenice man­age­ment reached a com­pro­mise with the cen­sors, but all of the key dra­mat­ic points from Le roi s’amuse made it into Rigo­let­to. In the title char­ac­ter, Ver­di wrote what is prob­a­bly the great­est part ever writ­ten for a high bari­tone — an aston­ish­ing tour de force for a singing actor who can con­vey all the emo­tion­al nuances of the music.

Some writ­ers have com­pared Verdi’s Rigo­let­to to Beethoven’s Third Sym­pho­ny — with it, the com­pos­er reached a new lev­el of mas­tery, broke new ground in his art form, and after it noth­ing was ever the same. In Rigo­let­to Ver­di took the exist­ing forms of Ital­ian bel can­to opera as used by Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, and Donizetti, and mold­ed them into a new, more imme­di­ate­ly and pow­er­ful music dra­ma, which he would con­tin­ue to expand for the rest of his life.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly an Ital­ian opera would open with a cho­rus, intro­duc­ing one of the main char­ac­ters who would then sing a for­mal aria, fre­quent­ly in two parts, first a slow cantabile, then a faster cabalet­ta. But con­sid­er how Ver­di adapt­ed this form in Rigo­let­to’s open­ing scene. It would have been easy to fol­low the tra­di­tion. The open­ing scene is a par­ty; the cho­rus could have been the usu­al exten­sive one, prais­ing their host the Duke, who would respond with the usu­al for­mal two-part aria. It would work per­fect­ly with the story.

Poster for the very first performance.

Instead, Ver­di fol­lows his intense­ly dra­mat­ic, extreme­ly short pre­lude (in which trum­pets and trom­bones con­stant­ly reit­er­ate the dot­ted-note rhythm and notes Rigo­let­to will use through­out the opera with the phrase “Quel vec­chio male­di­a­mi!” That old man cursed me!) with an off-stage band play­ing some of the most banal “cheer­ful” music pos­si­ble. Instead of open­ing with the cho­rus (which is on stage), we get snip­pets of brief con­ver­sa­tion by a vari­ety of char­ac­ters that will only make sense in hindsight.

In this open­ing scene Ver­di antic­i­pates the cin­e­ma by more than half a cen­tu­ry. He (the cam­era) is walk­ing us through the par­ty, giv­ing us an overview while let­ting us over­hear numer­ous bits of con­ver­sa­tion. When Ver­di wants to let us know some­thing is real­ly impor­tant, he switch­es from the off-stage ban­da to using the orches­tra in the pit (as in a cam­era close-up). As he does for the Duke’s first aria, “Ques­ta o quel­lo.” Yes, it is the Duke’s first aria, but far from being the usu­al two-part for­mal aria Ver­di gives the Duke a breezy dance tune (in the score it is labeled “Bal­la­ta”). It fits per­fect­ly with the dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tion, gives us insight into the Duke him­self, and last bare­ly two min­utes; then the orches­tra yields to a string ban­da on stage and  the flirt­ing — the con­ver­sa­tion that sets up the entire opera — con­tin­ues. It is all so con­cise that the entire whirl­wind open­ing scene lasts bare­ly fif­teen minutes.

Anoth­er way Ver­di reworked the forms of Ital­ian opera, was the way he repeat­ed­ly inter­rupts a scene to give the audi­ence a fore­taste of what’s to come. In the open­ing scene, the cho­rus is inter­rupt­ed by Monterone’s appear­ance and curse, which abrupt­ly changes the tone of the scene — thus height­en­ing the cru­cial point of the dra­ma. In the sec­ond scene, the duet between Rigo­let­to and Gil­da is inter­rupt­ed by the furtive arrival of the Duke, who, in turn, is inter­rupt­ed in his woo­ing of Gil­da by a noise out­side which turns out to be the foot­steps of the courtiers who have come to abduct Gil­da. Her sin­gle aria is inter­rupt­ed by their com­ments, which serve to tight­en the dra­ma. All this over­lap­ping of scenes and char­ac­ters gives a sense of urgency and propul­sive­ness to the storytelling.

Felice Vare­si, the first Rigoletto

In was in Rigo­let­to that Ver­di set the stan­dard in writ­ing an exten­sive ensem­ble (the famous Quar­tet), which serves not only the for­mal, tech­ni­cal require­ments of an iso­lat­ed set piece of music, but also imparts addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about all the char­ac­ters involved and fur­thers the dra­ma — all at the same time. Rather than hav­ing each of the char­ac­ters sing the same musi­cal phrase in turn, and then work­ing it togeth­er har­mon­i­cal­ly (as com­posers had tend­ed to do before), Ver­di assigns each of the four char­ac­ters a dis­tinct melody and rhythm unique­ly his or her own — that only that char­ac­ter could sing at that point in the dra­ma. For exam­ple, the Duke’s insou­ciant woo­ing of Mad­dale­na with his seduc­tive, lyric melody to the words “Bel­la figlia dell’amore” (Beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of love), which oozes charm and pheromones equal­ly; her answer in scam­per­ing stac­ca­to six­teenth notes that elude the Duke musi­cal­ly as she deft­ly eludes his grop­ing hands on stage; Gilda’s descend­ing melod­ic line that con­stant­ly droops, sighs, breaks into sobs, and Rigoletto’s broad, com­pas­sion­ate sup­port­ing of Gil­da. Some­how Ver­di mirac­u­lous­ly turns all these dis­parate ele­ments into a prop­er quar­tet of aston­ish­ing beau­ty, even ele­gance with­out rob­bing the num­ber of any of its con­sid­er­able dra­mat­ic and emo­tion­al impact.

Add to this Verdi’s grow­ing facil­i­ty at orches­tra­tion and the numer­ous ways he uses the orches­tra to give emo­tion­al col­or to a char­ac­ter of a scene. For instance, his use of flutes when Rigo­let­to sud­den­ly thinks of Gil­da dur­ing “Pari siamo,” or when she is on stage, to con­vey her inno­cence and puri­ty; or the way he slow­ly builds the storm in the last act, the utter con­vinc­ing fury of its height, and then the way it takes most of the rest of the act to die away.

After Rigo­let­to, Ver­di gave us only mas­ter­pieces (the sin­gle excep­tion being Arol­do, itself a rework­ing of the ear­li­er Stiffe­lio) — one after anoth­er until his mirac­u­lous Fal­staff writ­ten at the age of almost eighty. As Julian Bud­den writes in his mon­u­men­tal study of Verdi’s operas: “Just after 1850, at the age of thir­ty-eight, Ver­di closed the door on a peri­od of Ital­ian opera with Rigo­let­to. The so-called ottocèn­to in music was fin­ished. Ver­di con­tin­ued to draw on cer­tain of its forms for the next few opera, but in a total­ly new spirit.”


Rigo­let­to Extra:

The Duke’s Famous Aria

Though Rigo­letto, like most Ver­di opera, is brim­ming with melody, one catchy tune per­sis­tent­ly stands out from all the oth­ers: “La don­na è mobile” (Woman is fick­le). It’s one of the most famous tenor arias ever writ­ten and is sung by the lib­er­tine Duke in the opera’s last act, in which its slight­ly tawdry — but utter­ly irre­sistible — nature is sheer genius on Verdi’s part. There is noth­ing the least bit aris­to­crat­ic about it (unlike the Duke’s Act One aria, “Ques­ta o quel­la.”) In the last act the Duke is slum­ming, in dis­guise, set­tling in for an evening of drink­ing and whor­ing, but even so, his irre­press­ible charm pre­vails, per­fect­ly cap­tured in this catchy, but almost plebian tune in three-quar­ter (waltz) time.

Ver­di cer­tain­ly knew how unfor­get­table this effer­ves­cent song was, and he was con­cerned that it might become known before the opera’s pre­mier in Venice on March 11, 1851. Leg­end has it that to avoid the singers or oth­er mem­bers of the com­pa­ny whistling or hum­ming the melody out­side the the­ater before open­ing night (thus dilut­ing the shock of the audi­ence har­ing it for the first time in the con­text of the dra­ma), he delayed giv­ing the music to the tenor until the dress rehearsal.

This seems a bit unlike­ly since one of the most jar­ring uses of the tune in when the tenor repris­es it at the end, as Rigo­let­to stands over the sack he believes con­tains the Duke’s body. It is unlike­ly Ver­di would chance ruin­ing such a hor­ri­fy­ing coup de théâtre by only hav­ing rehearsed the moment once. But it is quite pos­si­ble the com­pos­er delayed giv­ing the tenor the music to “La don­na è mobile” until well into the rehearsal process so it would still be fresh on open­ing night.

And one can eas­i­ly believe the oth­er sto­ries about the aria, that the first audi­ence exit­ed La Fenice hum­ming and whistling the new hit tune. After all, audi­ences still do that over 150 years later.

This arti­cle first appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book for the Aspen Opera Theater.

The pho­to at the top of the page is the great Tito Gob­bi as Rigo­let­to, one of his most famous roles.

FALSTAFF — The Ultimate Bel Canto Opera?



What peo­ple do with food is an act that reveals how they con­strue the world,” writes Mar­cel­la Haz­an in The Clas­sic Ital­ian Cook­book. Her point is a good one, and by sub­sti­tut­ing the word “voice” for “ingre­di­ents” in Hazan’s dis­cus­sion of Ital­ian cui­sine, one gets a superb descrip­tion of Ital­ian bel can­to opera – and just what makes Verdi’s Fal­staff the supreme mas­ter­piece it is.

The essen­tial qual­i­ty of Ital­ian food can be defined as fideli­ty to its ingre­di­ents, to their taste, col­or, shape, and fresh­ness,” she explains. “The meth­ods of Ital­ian cook­ing are not intend­ed to improve an ingredient’s char­ac­ter, but rather to allow it as much free and nat­ur­al devel­op­ment as the taste­ful bal­ance of a dish will permit.”

Just as Ital­ian cook­ing depends on raw ingre­di­ents “of the fresh­est and choic­est qual­i­ty,” bel can­to opera depends on great voic­es. In bel can­to opera the empha­sis is on voice, voice, voice. It is through the voice that the dra­ma and emo­tion are pri­mar­i­ly con­veyed. No mat­ter how skill­ful­ly Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, Donizetti and Ver­di wrote for the orches­tra (and they were all mas­ters at it), they con­ceived of it as a way to enhance the voice. The orches­tra was the embell­ish­ing sauce, not the main dish itself.

Fal­staff is often viewed as an opera that has almost noth­ing to do with Verdi’s ear­li­er works. Some crit­ics have described it as being more like a Wag­ner­ian opera, and com­plained it lacks arias and set pieces. In fact, Fal­staff is the cul­mi­na­tion of bel can­to opera. In writ­ing it, Ver­di took the ele­ments of Ital­ian opera and boiled them down to their very essence, like a mas­ter chef reduc­ing a sauce.

One of the sur­pris­ing things about Fal­staff is just how often the singers are left com­plete­ly on their own. Time after time Ver­di silences the orches­tra entire­ly and leaves the voice total­ly exposed — for a few words or a phrase — but always in a way that points up the dra­ma, as well as empha­siz­ing the voice itself.

Tito Gob­bi, a mar­velous Falstaff

For instance, in Falstaff’s famous “Hon­or mono­logue” when he asks, “Can hon­or fill up your bel­ly? Can hon­or set a bro­ken leg? Or a foot? Or a fin­ger? Or a hair?” each ques­tion is asked a capel­la. But Ver­di varies the sound by bring­ing in the orches­tra each time Fal­staff answers the ques­tion with a resound­ing “No.” And it is in the way Verdi’s orches­tra accom­pa­nies each “No” that reveals just what a mas­ter chef Ver­di has become in con­coct­ing the tim­bre of his opera.

A less expe­ri­enced com­pos­er might well be tempt­ed to use the entire orches­tra to ham­mer home the humor of each “No,” giv­ing it a great orches­tral splat — the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of a prat­fall. At least, one might expect, sure­ly Ver­di would ask for a loud thump on the ket­tle­drums and a juicy blat on the tuba. But no. Instead Ver­di judi­cious­ly sea­sons this part of his score with a sin­gle clar­inet, play­ing very low in its reg­is­ter,  a sin­gle bas­soon — both play­ing stac­ca­to — and two string bass­es (Ver­di asks they pluck, rather than bow the strings). Only four instru­ments from the entire orches­tra, and all four direct­ed to play soft­ly. The result is a deli­cious com­bi­na­tion of instru­men­tal tim­bres, redo­lent of irony and acer­bic humor, and utter­ly right for that moment of the opera.

In fact, it is just that qual­i­ty of utter right­ness for every sin­gle moment of the opera, the unique­ness and exact­ness of Verdi’s response to the dra­ma and emo­tion of the libret­to, that makes Fal­staff such a con­stant joy for the lis­ten­er. But since every moment of the score has its own col­or, its own sea­son­ing, it pass­es so quick­ly that it is often gone before lis­ten­ers have con­scious­ly rec­og­nized it.

In the first scene of the opera, the scam­per­ing strings that accom­pa­ny Falstaff’s call­ing for the Page and instruct­ing him to take the love let­ters to Alice and Meg lasts for maybe 10 sec­onds. When Fal­staff answers his ques­tion, “What is hon­or?” by reply­ing “A word,” Ver­di empha­sizes how lit­tle Fal­staff val­ues a word by the del­i­cate orches­tral response: one flute and one clar­inet play­ing four quick, ascend­ing notes, fol­lowed by a four notes from a pic­co­lo and an oboe going even high­er. It is almost over before we even hear it — like the per­fect sea­son­ing in a light sauce that lasts just a sec­ond on the tongue and van­ish­es before we can quite make out exact­ly what it is.

Ver­di also uses his orches­tra to move the audi­ence from one strong emo­tion­al state to quite a dif­fer­ent emo­tion, but he does it so deft­ly it only reg­is­ters in retrospect.

At the end of the first scene of Act II, Ford gives into his jeal­ous­ly, and works him­self into a tirade, the end of which is accom­pa­nied by the entire orches­tra in full war cry, pas­sion­ate­ly echo­ing the character’s over­whelm­ing rage — for four mea­sures. Two mea­sures lat­er the orches­tra ele­gant­ly accom­pa­nies the re-entry of a fop­pish Fal­staff, dressed for woo­ing. How does Ver­di move an audi­ence from anger to gig­gles in only two mea­sures? The astute com­pos­er knew that a gen­uine bel­ly laugh always over­throws anger, so out of the thun­der­ing orches­tra, Ver­di wrote descend­ing triplets for the horns silenc­ing most of the rest of the orches­tra so audi­ence would be sure to hear the horns’ deep, hearty musi­cal laugh.

This com­bin­ing of astute psy­cho­log­i­cal insights with deft musi­cal touch­es is part of Verdi’s genius in Fal­staff, and the way he does that, while also pay­ing trib­ute to his bel can­to roots, is almost overwhelming.

One of the char­ac­ter­is­tic of bel can­to opera is the large ensem­ble with which acts often close. Prin­ci­pals and cho­rus all react to what has just hap­pened dra­mat­i­cal­ly on stage, and an extend­ed con­cert num­ber devel­ops. Typ­i­cal­ly one or two of the opera’s main char­ac­ters sing a long, arch­ing lyric line over the rest of the ensemble’s more rhyth­mic, pul­sat­ing music, which pro­vides a var­ied and excit­ing musi­cal tex­ture — and a quite effec­tive, and enjoy­able, close to an act.

Ver­di uti­lized this bel can­to device at the end of Act I, but he used what had been pri­mar­i­ly a musi­cal moment, not only to fur­ther the dra­ma, but also to con­vey his pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal insight into the char­ac­ter of Fen­ton. The entire sec­ond scene of Act I is an extend­ed ensem­ble of Mozart­ian per­fec­tion. We meet the Mer­ry Wives of Wind­sor and watch them hatch their plot against Fal­staff (Ver­di uti­lizes the bel can­to tra­di­tion of writ­ing vocal embell­ish­ments in a character’s music to add empha­sis by writ­ing trills for all of the women to point up the humor of their words); Bar­dolf and Pis­tol tell Ford what Fal­staff is up to and a coun­ter­plot is hatched; and in the midst of all this bustling, non­stop activ­i­ty the young lovers Fen­ton and Nanet­ta woo.

Juan Diego Flo­rez, an enchant­i­ng Fenton

Verdi’s mas­ter­stroke occurs at the cli­max of the nine-part (!) ensem­ble. Eight of the voic­es are busy plot­ting in scur­ry­ing eighth notes and six­teenth notes, but Fen­ton is singing music total­ly dif­fer­ent from every­one else on stage. Ver­di knew that when a young man falls in love for the first time, it com­plete­ly knocks him into an entire­ly new world.  It is some­thing out­side the exis­tence he has known, he is total­ly unpre­pared for it and he often becomes obliv­i­ous to what’s going on around him. “She whose sweet love my heart is mur­mur­ing, bright­est love! We will be like a con­stel­la­tion shim­mer­ing, two hearts unit­ed as one,” Fen­ton rhap­sodizes in long arch­ing phras­es, soar­ing over the hub­bub of the rest of the char­ac­ters. In one per­fect stroke Ver­di pays trib­ute to an ele­ment of bel can­to opera, defines Fenton’s char­ac­ter and reminds us how sweet, and how fleet­ing, young love is.

The ado­les­cent love bun­dle,” is how Charles Osborne summed up Nanette and Fen­ton. Ver­di and Boito bring back the young lovers in each of the three acts, con­trast­ing their hon­est, fresh, true love with Falstaff’s heavy-hand­ed, over-the-top com­ic woo­ing. But even the wel­comed moments of lyric repose the young lovers offer, in the midst of the opera’s gen­er­al hilar­i­ty, are just “a taste.” They nev­er have a prop­er love duet and Fen­ton nev­er gets a com­plete aria.

I like that love of theirs, it serves to make the whole com­e­dy more fresh and more sol­id,” Boito wrote to Ver­di. “So it is point­less to have them sing a gen­uine duet togeth­er by them­selves. Their part, even with­out the duet, will be very effec­tive, indeed, it will be even more effec­tive with­out. I don’t quite know how to explain myself: I would like to sprin­kle the whole com­e­dy with that light­heart­ed love, like pow­dered sug­ar on a cake, with­out col­lect­ing it in one point.”

Pas­tas are nev­er swamped by sauce,” Mar­cel­la Haz­an warns the ama­teur cook. “Por­tions are nev­er so swollen in size as to tax our capac­i­ty for enjoyment.”

Ver­di knew that. And in Fal­staff he pre­sent­ed us with an oper­at­ic ban­quet that sums up the his­to­ry of Ital­ian opera, by giv­ing us a series of tastes and fla­vors. He has done it so mas­ter­ful­ly that the more we know about opera, the more we are in awe of his feast and the more we enjoy it.  But it is so tasty that even a novice can delight in it. And isn’t that one def­i­n­i­tion of a True Masterpiece?

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2002.




LA TRAVIATA – Giuseppe Verdi


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.”


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.