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.