Learn more about La Traviata from Stage Director Johnathon Pape
The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils created quite a sensation when it was published in 1848. The novel presented a rather revealing slice of contemporary life in its authentic depiction of the Parisian demi-monde-that glittering world where men of means consorted with glamorous women of easy virtue. Although the characters had been fictionalized, the story was based largely upon the author’s affair with the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis. She was perhaps the biggest celebrity of her day, famous for her great beauty, her many lovers and her lavish lifestyle. She met the young Dumas when they were both 20. Their romance ended badly, and within a year she was dead of consumption. Dumas, who was just 23 years old, penned the novel in a few short weeks. Although there were clear differences between the novel and the well-publicized events that inspired it, there was no escaping the essence of truth and personal loss that lived in every page. By 1852, Dumas fils had adapted his wildly successful novel into a play, which rapidly established itself as a classic of 19th century romantic theatre. The title role became a favorite of many leading ladies, including Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse.
Verdi was living in Paris during this time with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who would eventually become his second wife. He was captivated by the novel and play, perhaps because he too was in a relationship that polite society was reluctant to accept. He began work on an operatic setting of the story. After overcoming numerous obstacles with the censors (a chronic problem in Verdi’s career), the opera opened in Venice in March of 1853. It was Verdi’s wish that the opera be presented in modern dress. He sought a soprano for the title role who not only had the required vocal ability, but was completely believable in the part. Unfortunately the prima donna for the premiere was rather large and the audience was very uncomfortable seeing their own time presented with such unflinching honesty. The opening night was a fiasco. Fortunately, the opera was presented again with a new cast and a production that was set over a hundred years earlier. La Traviata has had an enduring place in the repertory ever since. During much of the 19th century, La Traviata was presented in 18th century settings. After 1900, it became more fashionable to set the opera as Verdi intended, probably because the audience no longer viewed it as a comment on their world. (Tulsa Opera audiences may well remember the stir that Nic Muni’s modern-dress production of La Traviata created in the early 1990s, when he set the opera in the world of high-class New York call girls during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.)
Matters of production and setting notwithstanding, La Traviata succeeds most of all because of the poignant human drama it presents. The personal cost, profound authenticity and lavish romanticism that Dumas fils captured in his novel and play are also hallmarks of Verdi’s score. It is arguably Verdi’s most intimate work and the only one which he set in his own time. Like the young Dumas before him, Verdi creates a heartbreaking portrait of a woman who chooses true love over a hedonistic lifestyle, only to be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for that love. One cannot help but be both moved and inspired by the nobility and grace of this “traviata,” or fallen woman.