Perhaps the best-loved opera
by Giuseppe Verdi
(who died one hundred years ago today, on 27 January 1901). It is based on La dame aux camélias
, the roman à clef
by Alexandre Dumas fils
based on his own liaison with the tragic courtesan Marie Duplessis
, who had died of consumption
in 1847. In the book and play Dumas called her Marguerite Gautier
; in his opera Verdi called her Violetta Valéry
. The same story gave the Greta Garbo
, and the ballet Marguerite and Armand
, created for Fonteyn
La Traviata had its libretto by Francesco Piave. It was first performed on 6 March 1853 at La Fenice in Venice, with Fanny Salvini Donatelli creating Violetta and Ludovico Graziani as Alfredo. Because it was so contemporary and shocking, the censors refused to let it be performed in modern dress, and it was set in the 1700s: this persisted until about 1910. The Times in 1856, when it was first performed in London (and in New York), said it was full of "foul and hideous horrors", and no English translation was made available.
Violetta is a woman who loves luxury and life, but is too light to give her heart to a man. She is also, secretly, consumptive. The title traviata means 'led astray'. The opera begins at a party, where Violetta is introduced to Alfredo, a young man who has adored her from afar. He rouses the guests in a brindisi or drinking song, Libiamo ne' lieti calici. Violetta is enjoying herself to the full, but as other guests go out to the dancing, she almost collapses. Alfredo goes to her aid. So concerned is he for her health, she rallies him on his secret passion, and he assures her of his devotion in the slow song Un dì felice, "one happy day, I saw an ethereal vision...".
She turns him down, but is deeply touched by his love (oh dear, I've started crying, and we're still only in Act One), and enjoins his friendship. Then once alone, she reflects. She is tired of her hectic life, and although she knows that dreams of love are nonsense, she recalls her wishes to find such love: È strano..., "it's strange". She tries to throw off these fond wishes (Sempre libera "always free"), but at the end of Act One Alfredo's voice floats back to her.
In Act Two she is living in the country with Alfredo, having given up her lovers, her riches, and her parties for him. Alfredo sings how happy he is (Lunge da lei), but happens to learn from her maid that Violetta has been selling all her horses and jewellery to finance their life together. Ashamed, he rushes to Paris to forestall this.
Then Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, arrives to talk to her. He has assumed she is simply in it for money, and has no real love for his son. His daughter is to be married soon, except that Alfredo's connexion with Violetta brings shame on the family and jeopardizes the match. Germont seeks to buy her off. Her gracious resentment startles him into treating her with more respect. So he appeals to her honour, telling her of his daughter Pure siccome un angelo "as pure as an angel".
She tells him she could never give up Alfredo, and that she is dying. He assures her she is beautiful and will find love again, and begs her to sacrifice her feelings for Alfredo. She finally concedes, and weeping she sings
Dite alla giovine -- si bella e pura
Ch'avvi una vittima -- della sventura,
Cui resta un unico -- raggio di bene...
Che a lei il sacrifica -- e che morrà!
Tell the young girl -- so beautiful and pure
There was a victim -- of misadventure,
To whom there remained a single -- ray of good...
Who sacrificed it to her -- and who will die!
Germont and she embrace, and she agrees to leave Alfredo. She warns him he will be broken-hearted
, and begs him that one day he will tell Alfredo the truth. Immediately she returns to Paris
. She goes to a party with her former protector, the Baron
. Alfredo tracks her down and in public furiously throws money at her feet to requite
their debts. His father condemns him for his disgraceful
In Act Three she lies in her bed; it is Carnival day and she hears rejoicing outside. She instructs her maid to give away the last of her money; she knows she will have very little use for any more. A doctor attends her. She receives a letter from Germont saying that the Baron was wounded in a duel with Alfredo, who now knows of her secret promise, and he is returning to her.
È tardi! -- "It is too late!"
She mournfully sings Addio del passato "farewell to the past", knowing that all her happiness and life is gone for ever. Suddenly Alfredo arrives. They embrace, and she feels it is not too late, she has something to live for: but she staggers, still weak, and realizes that even Alfredo's love might not be enough. The doctor is summoned back, and Germont arrives with him. He embraces her this time as his daughter. For the first time Germont realizes that she meant what she said before, and understands how he has destroyed her. With a final plea to Alfredo to find a girl to marry, knowing her prayers from heaven will be with him, she finds the spasms of pain have ceased (Cessarono gli spasmi del dolore), and in joy she dies.