/Think you know enough about Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ in time for the Royal Opera House’s #BPbigscreens? Think again.

Think you know enough about Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ in time for the Royal Opera House’s #BPbigscreens? Think again.

Context notes and Synopsis

I have included details on:
  • Verdi’s inspirations
  • Violetta’s characterisation
  • Short section on the music
  • Modern films inspired by the opera
  • Clips from other presentations of the opera
  • Why it is regarded as No.1 in the world according to Operabase.com. 
 There should be enough information to get you in the mood for the Royal Opera House’s #BPbigscreens of ‘La Traviata’ taking place on 20th May.  (All views are my own.) 

More literature about the cast and the production: Click here 
(This is the version to be shown on the 20th May)

On 2ndFebruary 1852 Verdi saw Alexandre Dumas’ play, ‘La Dame aux caméllias’ in Paris, which was the inspiration behind ‘La Traviata.’ ‘La Dame aux caméllias is based on Damas’ own novel about Marie Duplessis (1824-47); he dubs her as Marguerite Gautier in the play. Dumas bases the story on his true account of the relationship he had with Marie who suffered consequences such as Marie’s infidelity in addition to financial difficulties which is unlike ‘La Traviata’  which uses a father figure to break the relationship. Marie was characterised as a Parisian courtesan with wit and beauty who carried a bouquet of camellias and died of consumption at the age of 23. Dumas depicts her as a part of the demimonde whose lifestyle choices and immorality offended the puritan values of the 19th century.
Some historians have suggested that Verdi’s interest in ‘La Dame aux  caméllias can be seen through his own personal life, which may have added to his aspirations in creating ‘La Traviata.’ This involved his love affair with Giuseppina Streppon, who had two illegitimate children, which  generated considerable scandal among the citizens of Busetto and his father figure, Antonio Barezzi, who criticised him for continuing the relationship.
Francesco Maria Piave was the librettist for ‘La Traviata’ who managed to write a first draft within five days, reducing the five acts from Dumas’ play into three. It focuses on three main characters: Violetta, Alfredo and Germont.
On the premiére of ‘La Traviata’ at La Fenice in Venice on 6 March 1853, the performance was described as a disaster and Verdi even wrote to his friend Tito Ricordi, ‘Unfortunately, I have to send you sad news, but I can’t conceal the truth from you. Traviata was a fiasco. Don’t try to work out the reason, that’s just the way it is. ‘ However, Verdi already had his concerns regarded the production. Firstly, the lead Soprano, Salvini- Donatelli (1815 – 1891), who was not his first choice, was 38 years old and weighed over 20 stone, which was the antithesis of how Verdi would have wanted Violetta to be casted. His ideal Violetta would have been ‘young, had a graceful figure and could sing with passion.’ Unfortunately, for Donatelli,who received good reviews for her voice, was laughed at soon after Act 1 and towards the end of the opera.
Verdi, also, sought to add a contemporary touch to the opera and  requested the singers be in modern dress; the opera was also regarded as being the first for dealing with such censored and immoral topics including sexuality, prostitution and the disease: consumption. This was not popular among various countries, so much so that La Fenice declined Verdi’s request for contemporary costume and insisted the singers be dressed in 17th century costume – the era of Richelieu – to keep the opera’s provocative and highly controversial ideas at a distance. At the time, operas portraying death through consumption were considered taboo, as it was a deadly disease that could take life in a matter of months.
After 14 months of withdrawing the opera, revisions and amendments were made between 1853 and May 1854 particularly on Act 2 and Act 3. They were performed, on Verdi’s approval, at the Teatro San Benedetto and Violetta was sung by Maria Spezia-Aldighieri who was closer to Verdi’s ideal casting. As a result, it was a successful performance that was produced all over Italy and Europe, always in 18th century costume.
Following the revival after the Teatro San Benedetto (1854) Giulio Ricordi recommended Soprano, Gemma Bellincioni, for the next role as Desdemona in ‘Otello’ having  been cast as Violetta. But Verdi replied, ‘I couldn’t judge her from ‘La Traviata’; even a mediocrity could possess the right qualities to shine in that opera and be dreadful in everything else.’ For Verdi, Violetta was a ‘near perfect union’ of music and drama. He thought that a strong and dynamic coloratura soprano was needed to highlight the glamour and extravagance of Violetta’s Parisian lifestyle from ‘Sempre libera’ to, then, infuse emotion, death and love together through her agility and stamina to sing powerfully for songs such as ‘Amami, Alfredo’ without the use of flourishes.

The Music

Often, like other operas, ‘La Traviata’ songs have be used for commercial reasons which maybe recognisable to some, even if they have not seen the complete opera.
Rhythmic choruses of the matadors, gypsies and carnival music are often familiar songs.  For a love story, viewers may question its usage in such a heartrending opera but, in fact, these choruses are used as dramatic device deliberately added by Verdi to provide calm after emotional outpouring moments by Violetta in Act 1, Act 3 as well as Act 2 where she dashes to Flora’s party leaving Alfredo behind.
When Violetta sings ‘Amami, Alfredo,’ it is the single most poignant part of the entire opera , in my opinion (which brings me to tears each and every time.) As much as her words ask for Alfredo’s love in the cheerful sense, coloratura sopranos must face the challenge of conveying a Violetta that betrays her outward appearance whilst instilling the sadness of abandoning him and their love.

This is a clip from Willy Decker’s 2005 production at the Salzburg Festival; notice the use of a large clock as the centerpiece for the stage (by Wolfgang Gussman) to signify Violetta’s impending death. Anna Netrebko’s is Violetta, Rolando Villazón is Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as Germont. Villazón viciously stuffs and throws money all over Netrebko’s body, which although unsettling is quite effective. 

Placido Domingo is Alfredo in Franco Zeffirelli film of ‘La Traviata.’ At the age of 20, Domingo made his debut in Mexico and later admitted that he, ‘had not yet learned to control his emotions.’ Teresa Stratas’ Violetta encapsulates a lot of the elements Verdi would have wanted in his ideal Violetta (in my view.) Cornell MacNeil plays Germont

Modern Film

Gary Marshall’s 1990 romcom ‘Pretty Woman’ is the most obvious movie that represents certain aspects of ‘La Traviata’ given that the heroine who is an inexperienced prostitute, Vivian Ward (Julian Roberts) falls for the handsome and successful businessman, Edward Lewis (Richard Gere). One of Lewis’ ways of courtship includes sweeping her off by private jet to watch ‘La Traviata’ on stage (how fitting?) She tells an audience member, ‘Oh, it was so good, I almost peed my pants! to ‘which Edward translates as, ‘she said she liked it better than The Pirates of Penzance.’ However, the big difference between Ward and Violetta is that this prostitute gets her happy ending.
Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 romance musical ‘Moulin Rouge’ was also inspired by ‘La Traviata’ but (I believe) has more plot elements from ‘La Dame aux  caméllias.‘ Also set in Paris the red light district of Montmartre, a young English writer and talented musician, Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls in love with courtesan and cabaret dancer, Satine (Nicole Kidman.) (Luhrmann was inspired by the Greek mythology of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ in making Christian a musical genius.) Satine, like Violetta, suffers from consumption and has to forfeit her relationship with Christian to secure the rights to the Moulin Rouge, staying loyal to the theatre and appease its investor, the Duke of Monroth. This is all at the advice of Harold Zidler; the owner for the Moulin Rouge and (in our case,) Satine’s father figure who tells her to leave her love, Christian, behind.  
Why is ‘La Traviata’ rated No. 1 by the world according to Operabase.com

‘La Traviata’ is a love tragedy that underpins the suffering of a woman – a high-class prostitute – who is put in the spotlight of Parisian society. Supposedly, a beautiful and witty courtesan she is, in fact, fatally ill, and, despite being in love with a wealthy man, who loves her back (which is, perhaps, not often the case) she is requested to leave and relinquish any hope she has of them being together. There is also her willingness to move to the country, sell her possessions and support them financially, which subverts her position from prostitute to protector. However, as we see later on, her lover turns his back on her by embarrassing her in front of society by throwing his winnings at her, whereby society and his own father, pity her and condemn the man’s behavior.
From Violetta’s coughing and repetitive mention of her looming illness, the audience is led into an opera focusing on the life of an immoral character; a contemporary subject that we would not usually pity, but for Violetta, we do. This opera draws on controversial and opposing themes at the same time, which is what makes ‘La Traviata’ an original opera with reference to prostitution, love, social hierarchy and consumption. Looking back at how  contentiously ‘La Traviata’ was received from its first showing in Venice (1953,) it is a testament to how these 19thcentury values have left us, and to some degree have not; no-one no one has created a opera about lovers torn apart by HIV, but there is ‘Rent’ the theatre show.
Verdi’s use of both sorrowful arias  coupled with timed dances and carnival songs breaks up an emotional storyline, again evoking the use of contraries, which work remarkably well in this opera. In its entirely, with the combination of these dramaturgical themes and literary necessities and, more importantly, Verdi’s overwhelming rich musical score, this can only be but a timeless and memorable opera that affects us all. It is, however, the task of the director and production company to ensure they find the appropriate coloratura soprano to cast Violetta just as Verdi would have so wanted.

The Synopsis

This synopsis is based on the libretto. Productions may amend and change the opera as the director sees fit.


It is 1850; Violetta Valéry throws a party in the salon of her Paris mansion secured by the Baron Douphol, her protector. Violetta (in earlier productions) is known for carrying a bouquet of camellias. She suffers from consumption – a fatal respiratory disease. Her conversation with her doctor Dr. Grenvil is interrupted as guests enter, including Flora Bervoix, another courtesan who is financed by the Marchese; the Marquis; Gastone, a Viscount, introduces Violetta to Alfredo Germont, a young man from a provincial family in Provence, and tells her that Alfredo has fallen in love with her from afar and had been enquiring about her health daily. She then decides to chide the Baron for not being as attentive as Alfredo, as he replies, ‘I’ve known you only a year.’ 
Alfredo proposes a toast to love and pleasure, Libiamo ne’ lieti calici, and the partygoers join in his drinking song, ‘Brindisi’; Violetta rejoices as well and says life’s many pleasures need to be enjoyed. She encourages her guests to go to the next room and dance to the music of an accompaniment band, but suddenly she has a coughing fit and feels so ill that she has to sit down. Alfredo immediately comes to her attention even though she insists that he not worry and carry on enjoying the party, as ‘the chill will pass.’ He tells her that he must take care of herself to which she replies that she cannot afford to sacrifice her consumptive lifestyle. Here, Alfredo confesses that he has secretly loved her Di quell’amor, quell’ amor chépalpito for a year Un di felice o. At first, she questions his sincerity with the belief that romance cannot exist for her – a woman from the demimonde, and requests he forget her, as friendship is all she can offer him. She then hands him a camellia (depending on the production) and asks he return it when it has withered which he persuades her is ‘tomorrow!’ Oh ciel! Domani Alfredo leaves and the guests and chorus and soloists take part in a large ‘Verdi’ chorus Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora, and exit after. 
Left alone, Violetta is ecstatic of Alfredo’s love and admits she loves him too Ah, forśè lui che l’anima soling ne’ tumulti. Yet, she battles with her emotions, going to and fro, pondering her lavish and fashionable courtesan lifestyle, her loneliness and unsuitability for Alfredo’s love. She asks herself whether risking all of her extravagant privileges for his love is worthy as she is afraid it will be painful – as she lives for pleasure Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare di gioia in gioia. Yet, Alfredo sings from below her balcony Di quell’amor , which is an echo and reminder to Violetta of his love, which adds to her confusion. The scene ends with a repetition of her determination to be free and to live for the moment.
Act 2 Scene 1 

Set in a country house outside of Paris, Violetta and Alfredo have been living happily together De’ miei bollenti spiriti for 3 – 5 months (the actual duration varies between operas). Violetta has sacrificed the Parisian city life to be with Alfredo; however, Violetta still lives luxuriously and pays for all their bills, which Alfredo is only made aware of by Annina, Violetta’s maid. Alfredo feels ashamed O mio rimorso! O infamia! to hear that Violetta has requested Annina to sell off her horses, carriages and possessions to finance their living costs. She tells him that money is running out, so he immediately heads to Paris to try and raise more. 
Violetta enters and Giuseppe, a servant, gives her an invitation from Flora to a party taking place that evening but she puts this aside. She welcomes in a man she thought was a financial adviser when it is, actually, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. He is impolite towards her; accuses her of seeking his son’s fortune and destroying his reputation, but she proves him wrong by showing papers that she is supporting them – and not living on Alfredo’s income. She also admits to Giorgio that she is selling her possessions, at which point he realises he has misjudged her. Irrespective of this, Germont requests she leaves Alfredo for the sake of his two children, of which she has no knowledge Di due figli, and the sake of Alfredo’s sister whose marriage is being jeopardised by their scandalous relationship Pura siccome un angelo.  
Violetta accepts that she may have to leave Alfredo for a while but Germont insists this must be forever. This upsets Violetta as she pleads with him not to make her have to make such a sacrifice of letting Alfredo go; she tells him she cannot live without Alfredo Non sapete quale affetto vivo. Yet, Germont is unsympathetic and says their love affair is not blessed by heaven, and that his son’s desire for her will eventually fade Un dì, quando le veneri. Violetta gives in, weeps and decides that she will leave Alfredo as she says to Germont, ‘tell the pure and beautiful maiden, that an unfortunate woman, crushed by despair, sacrifices herself for her, and will die.’ Germont pities and venerates Violetta for her willingness to put his daughter first Piangi, Piangi, Piangi, o misera! He asks her to tell Alfredo that she no longer loves him and she asks him for an embrace as if she were his daughter. Germont bids her farewell and goes out to the garden to wait for Alfredo on Violetta’s request, as she knows that Alfredo will be distraught with the news. 
When Germont leaves, Violetta mourns and accepts Flora’s invitation to the party. (In other operas, Violetta writes a letter to the Baron Douplol.) She begins to write a farewell letter to Alfredo, but he interrupts her. She resists showing the letter to him, and, at the same time, he tells her that his father will like her. (In some versions, Alfredo is worried over a note he had received from his father whom he is expecting.) Violetta’s emotions are uncontrollable as she cries and bids to Alfredo ‘Love me, Alfredo. Love me as much as I love you’ Annina, Alfredo, quant’io t’amo. Here, Verdi has marked the score with con passion e forza. 
Once Violetta leaves, Alfredo, unaware of Violetta’s endeavour to leave him, is content momentarily until Giuseppe tells him that Violetta has left for Paris and a messenger gives him the letter from Violetta soon after. He reads the words, ‘Alfredo, by the time you receive this letter…’ and bursts into tears and embraces his father. Germont consoles him and tells him to consider his life in Provence Di Provenza il mar but Alfredo ignores him; enraged and jealous of the Baron, he sees Flora’s invitation and makes way to the party with his father following him.
Act 2 Scene 2

Flora’s party takes place in her salon, which the Marquis has paid for. There are gypsies dancing to their song Noi siamo zingarelle and some guests are dressed like matadors and picadors. The Marquis tells Flora that Violetta and Alfredo are no longer together and that Violetta will be coming with the Baron instead. When Alfredo enters, Flora asks for Violetta; he says he knows nothing of her and heads to the gambling table. Violetta and the Baron enter in together and the both see that Alfredo is there; here, the Baron forbids her to speak to him, and Violetta, shocked that he is there, asks God for mercy. The Baron challenges Alfredo to play for high stakes, and Alfredo continually wins as he says, ‘Unlucky in love, lucky at cards.’ When supper is announced, all the guests go to the dining room and the Baron discretely requests a rematch. Violetta enters after having left a message for Alfredo to speak to her.  
Alfredo enters the scene in anger, asking why she has summoned him; she warns him that the Baron wants to challenge him to a duel and advises him to leave.  Alfredo, however, accuses her of being selfish for thinking that if he won the duel she would lose both lover and keeper. She tries to convince him that she is genuinely worried for his life, and tells him that she loves the Baron. Alfredo calls all the guests and exclaims how foolish he was in letting Violetta waste her money on him. He asks them to bear witness to him repaying his debts to Violetta, as he sarcastically says Qui or testimon vi chiamo
che qui pagata io l’ho and throws his winnings at her (or onto her feet in some versions); she faints. Everyone is outraged and, at this moment, Alfredo’s father steps in and expresses his contempt for his son’s behavior and show of disrespect for Violetta. He says: “A man who insults a woman, even in anger, is himself worthy only of contempt.” Even though Alfredo feels guilt and shame for what he has done, Violetta tells him that God will forgive him and she will still love him in death Ah! Io spenta ancora, pur t’amerò. Alfredo is led away by his father, and the Baron challenges him to a duel. The act ends with another Verdi chorus expressing the remorse and sympathy felt for Violetta’s suffering.
Act 3 

The following month, Violetta is in her bedroom laying on her deathbed in critical condition. She is penniless and attended by Annina only. (Several versions include a priest and the doctor present who tells Annina that Violetta has only a few hours to live.) Violetta instructs Annina to give half of the money remaining to the poor and when Annina leaves, she begins to read (not sing) a letter from Germont describing Alfredo being abroad after having wounded the Baron and shall return to seek her forgiveness. But, it is too late È tardi! , as she knows that her health is deteriorating and she will die at any moment as she sings – as a fallen woman – farewell to all her happy dreams Ah, della traviata sorridi al desìo. A carnival baccanaletakes place outside to signify her impending death. 
Annina returns with exciting news that Alfredo has been seen and is making his way to her, and he makes a big entrance; he runs to her and they embrace in each other’s arms. He promises to take her to Paris so they can be together and she can recover Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo. Violetta is so filled with happiness and energy that she begins to prepare to go to church to thank God for Alfredo’s return; yet this is only momentary, as she faints. Here, Alfredo realises the severity of her illness and Violetta is desperate to be with Alfredo Ah, Gran Dio! Morir sì giovane. 
Germont (accompanied by the doctor in some operas) enters and embraces Violetta as he had once promised to her before. Violetta gives Alfredo a locket (or medallion in some versions) with a portrait of herself and tells him, ‘If some pure-hearted girl in the flower of her youth
 should give you her heart, let her be your wife. It’s what I’d want.’  Alfredo is miserable and cannot accept what is happening No, non morrai, non dirmelo. She tells him to deliver the message that an angel in heaven is praying over them. Suddenly, Violetta begins to feel rejuvenated and rises to her feet in joy Oh gioia and then dies.

Great Operas, Michael Steen (2012) 
The Complete Operas of Verdi, Charles Osborne (1997) 
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Opera, Stanley Sadie (2004) 
The Operas of Verdi: Volume 2, Julian Budden (1992)
La traviata Opera Guide Roger Parker, Anna Picard, et al. (2013)
La traviata Opera Guide, Nicholas John, Denis Arnold, et al. (1985)