Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is the epitome of High Romantic Italian Opera. For some, that means it’s the stereotype of all opera: a tragic, romantic story set to bright lights and stirring, beautiful music, complete with a beautiful heroine who dies in the last act, slowly and tunefully.
Opera-haters may scoff at La Traviata and opera-lovers may smile benignly on its clichés, but one thing is clear: the opera is hugely, massively popular, with hundreds of performances in over a hundred productions every year. If you add the tourist-oriented performances that are found weekly or more in many cities in Italy, La Traviata is probably the single most-performed opera in the world: only Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro comes close. There’s something deep and important at work - or perhaps a combination of things.
First and foremost, La Traviata’s allure comes from the melodies in its many set piece arias. Act I numbers like the Brindisi, the showpiece drinking song, and Un Di Felice, in which our hero describes the happy day he met his beloved, bring gladness to the heart of the most cynical and detached of listeners: the opera contains a succession of these. Verdi also provides his leading soprano with plenty of opportunities for coloratura fireworks: runs, trills and high notes abound. Another part of the appeal is the glittering setting: smart drawing rooms of the beau monde of 1830s Paris are meat and drink to set and costume designers who can convey spectacular visions of the high life to which many operagoers aspire - or at least yearn for. If you are looking for an evening of beautiful spectacle and beautiful music, search no further than the Act II scene 2 divertissement: Flora Bervoix’s party brightened by a chorus of gypsies and Spanish bullfighters, followed by the high drama of Alfredo’s scene at the card tables.
Perhaps all this glitz and tunefulness makes it a little too easy to miss the point. Behind the glamour lies a savage attack on the sexual hypocrisy of the times. The opera is based on the Alexandre Dumas novel La Dame Aux Camélias, a fictionalised account of the life of courtesan Marie Duplessis and her love affairs with Dumas himself and the son of the Duc de Guiche. Both the novel and Francesco Maria Piave’s opera libretto rail against the grotesque immorality whereby rich men were expected to have mistresses from the “demi monde” but required to keep their liaisons secret to avoid any stain on their family name. Marie/Violetta’s death from tuberculosis, alone and discarded by the world, is a shocking indictment of the prevailing social norms of the day. The moral intent of the opera is clear to see for anyone who wishes it - but, if you prefer, easy to ignore.
In contrast to the première of Verdi and Piave’s earlier morality tale Rigoletto, Verdi considered the 1853 opening night of La Traviata’s to have been a “fiasco”. The story clearly shows the contradictions of the genre. Violetta’s death has become one of the clichés of opera: we are supposedly a watching a frail creature dying from a life-consuming illness - the Victorian name for tuberculosis was “consumption” - whereas what is often in front of us is a voluminously built soprano in an even more voluminous costume projecting a powerful voice to the back of the auditorium. Verdi was aware of the danger and requested that the role be recast from the overweight soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli: the management of La Fenice refused the request. In the event, Salvini-Donatelli received great praise, described as singing the coloratura passages “with an indescribable skill and perfection”. However, Dr. Grenville’s announcement in the third act that Violetta had only hours to live caused outbursts of laughter in the audience, much to Verdi’s discomfiture.
Those days are long forgotten by most: opera house managers can bank on La Traviata to fill their houses with its matchless and seductive combination of glittering setting, melodious music and virtuoso singing.
Notable recordings of La Traviata feature Joan Sutherland in 1962 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, with Carlo Bergonzi as Alfredo and Sir John Pritchard conducting and Maria Callas’s 1955 recording with Giuseppe di Stefano, conducted at La Scala by Carlo Maria Giulini. Angela Gheorghiu’s 1994 recording at Covent Garden is also well regarded, as is Ileana Cotrubas’s 1997 performance with Plácido Domingo.
Plácido Domingo and Lucia Popp signing the “Brindisi”:
Luciano Pavarotti showing outstanding vocal control singing “Un Di Felice” with Joan Sutherland in 1965:
And for something completely different: La Traviata performed in 2008 in Zürich railway station:
13th February 2010
|Date and venue||Title|
The London Coliseum
|Disentangling La Traviata with Konwitschny at ENO|
|Of the many and varied operatic openings, that of La Traviata is one that I find increasingly demanding on an emotional level. The mournful harmonies and diaphanous scoring for strings that start off the prelude notoriously portray ill-fated Violetta moments before she dies of TB, returning in the final act as her destiny is about to be fulfilled.|
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RADA Studios: The Studio Theatre
|La Traviata in Berlin, 1938 by Opera UK|
|Jane McCulloch’s production of La Traviata is currently playing in the small Studio Theatre at RADA. The intriguing setting of Berlin, 1938, is rendered subtly, through wonderful 1930s costumes designed by the director, and references to Berlin life in McCulloch’s new translation. The strong company of singers are accompanied by light musical forces: a five-piece band led from the piano by Stephen Hose, including violin, viola, cello and clarinet. The production has a minimal set.|
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Pitlochry Festival Theatre
|Scottish Opera's La Traviata on a big tour round the wee bits of Scotland|
|It is always a challenge to take live opera to the places opera does not reach, and let’s face it, many people live a distance from the main performing venues. A long drive home after a three-hour opera or an overnight stay in the city weeds out all but the dedicated followers. Recent developments in cinema technology allow the Met to broadcast live relays round the world, with the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne now following suite.|
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Hong Kong Cultural Centre: Grand Theatre
|La Traviata with Opera Hong Kong: A commendable breakthrough|
|Verdi’s La Traviata is frequently listed as one of the most often programmed operas worldwide. Since it premiered in 1854, it must have greeted audiences around the world tens of thousands of times. It’s no wonder that all directors feel compelled to find new angles of interpretation to inject freshness and vitality into the opera – Willy Decker’s bold attempt at contemporary near-minimalism in Salzburg and then New York being the most memorable in the last decade.
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