Major Operas | La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi | High Romantic

The Fallen Woman

La dame aux camélias (‘The Lady of the Camellias’) by Alexandre Dumas had barely been staged in 1852 before Verdi took it up for La traviata, one of the great operas from his middle period.

It premiered at Teatro La Fenice, Venice on 6 March 1853, and the first performance was disastrous. Verdi blamed the singers and the audience burst out laughing in the final scene when the hefty soprano playing the heroine, Violetta, was supposed to be ‘wasting away’ from consumption.

La traviata managed to salvage success from its unfortunate beginnings, but it was still controversial. Violetta was modelled on the consumptive Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis (1824–47) who, together with other dubious, immoral characters of the demi-monde, offended the puritan tastes of the nineteenth century. Opera houses reacted by substituting a seventeenth-century setting to place La traviata at an acceptable distance. However, in retaining a courtesan as heroine despite the moralists, Verdi was anticipating the verismo of later nineteenth-century opera. In addition, Verdi experimented by changing the vocal music as the tragedy developed: the fun-loving Violetta of Act I, for instance, acquired a passionate intensity in Act II and ended in Act III as a fragile, fading shadow of her former self. In 1854, it was restaged at another Venetian theatre, and this time had been thoroughly rehearsed and better cast. It was a resounding success.

Composed: 1852–53
Premiered: 1853, Venice
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after Alexandre Dumas

Act I

Violetta, a high-class prostitute, is holding a party in her Parisian home. She indulges in a gay lifestyle, partly to distract herself from the fact that she is in the early stages of consumption. The nobleman Gastone introduces her to his friend Alfredo, who admires her. As the other guests go into another room to dance, Violetta is seized with a coughing fit and stays behind; Alfredo remains with her. He tends to her and expresses his love for her; she is touched. Left alone, she confesses that she has fallen in love for the first time.

Act II

Violetta has given up her life in Paris and is living with Alfredo in a small house in the country. Annina, a servant, informs Alfredo that they have no money left; in order to pay for the house, Violetta has been selling her jewellery. He leaves immediately for Paris, in order to raise the money to repay her.

Violetta receives an invitation to a party from Flora, a friend from Paris, and reminisces about her life there. Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, arrives on a visit. He at first accuses her of dragging his son into poverty, but she explains that she has been supporting them herself. He urges her to break off her relationship with Alfredo, as her sullied reputation is ruining that of his family. Furthermore, Alfredo’s sister wishes to marry and the family’s link to Violetta might prevent the match from going ahead.

Violetta realizes that leaving Alfredo will be...

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