From obscene Trivialità to Traviata

A Note from Music Director James Conlon
The third of Giuseppe Verdi’s so-called “middle-period trilogy” of masterpieces, La Traviata is arguably not only Verdi’s most popular opera, but one of a handful of the world’s most beloved operas. Several years after the trilogy was completed, when he was asked what his best opera was thus far, he answered: “Speaking as a professional, Rigoletto; speaking as an amateur, La Traviata.”

I have often mused on what he meant by this statement. La Traviata (the inoffensive title can be translated as “a woman led astray” or “corrupted”) has always spoken directly to the hearts of opera lovers. Its wealth of melodic invention and expressive vocalism, so perfectly wed to the touching and tragic love story, reverberated on a personal level with its creator.

This middle-period trilogy (a posthumous term) consists of Rigoletto (premiered on March 11, 1851), Il Trovatore (January 19, 1853) and La Traviata (March 6, 1853). I cite the dates of the premieres lest anyone overlook the fact that Verdi wrote them in an astonishingly short time, two of them virtually simultaneously. Not surprisingly, the music of each of the three works resembles the others. Yet hidden amongst the similarities, Rigoletto and La Traviata, each in its own way, inaugurate the future, whereas Il Trovatore is the crowning achievement of the past, the Verdian melodrama par excellence of the preceding 14 years. That Trovatore and Traviata, written so closely together, are so different is remarkable. Their brand of romanticism captured both a sense of completion and of summing up the previous hundred years of operatic theater, and is the vestibule to the future, which Verdi himself sets out in these works. Like the head of Janus, these works look backward—in some ways for the last time—but irrevocably point forward.

I would like to isolate one aspect of a common characteristic of the three masterpieces that is sometimes overlooked by those who might consider these works to be “old fashioned.” In fact, in the context of Italian theater of the early 1850s, they are not just daring, bold and shocking, but in their way, revolutionary.

Verdi’s theatrical genius led him ceaselessly to search for interesting dramatic material. Europe had been rocked by political upheaval and revolution in 1848, and the composer keenly felt the shock waves. His lifelong pursuit of popular appeal led him to eschew much of the formulaic opera libretti of the previous century. He foreswore mythology, ancient Greece, Rome and even Italian subjects. French, English, German and Spanish sources abound, and it is from Victor Hugo, Antonio García Gutiérrez and Alexandre Dumas that he found the sources for this extraordinary trilogy.

The common thread that weaves through these works is the presentation of protagonists who belong to categories of contemporary society’s cast-offs. Verdi saw the potential for explosive dramatic material in the lives and fates of a misanthropic hunchbacked jester, a tragically crazed Roma woman (her race still despised and marginalized throughout Europe) and a Parisian courtesan.

The genius is not only in the choice, but also in the rendering. We empathize with Rigoletto despite his physical and moral ugliness, because of his tender love for his daughter. Azucena’s plight (however farfetched the plot of Il Trovatore) wins our hearts, despite her degraded and reviled origins. Verdi allows both of them to point an accusatory finger at their societies for their abject existences, blaming their own wickedness on their surroundings.

Violetta accuses no one, admirably assumes total responsibility for her life, and dies of consumption. She turns her society’s hypocrisy on its head, demonstrates that this woman of “fallen virtue” personifies genuine love in contrast to the proponents of bourgeois morality. Verdi, by portraying a consumptive courtesan as a heroine, a symbol and incarnation of generous and boundless love, struck an unexpected chord in the history of Italian opera.

As Verdi dashed off Il Trovatore and La Traviata for their premieres separated by only five weeks, Richard Wagner was finishing the text of The Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner, Verdi’s Teutonic contemporary, posited that myths were the strongest subjects for music dramas. Verdi’s brand of Italian melodrama was rooted in realism. Yet while choosing a contemporary subject (the only time he did so in his 26 operas) that could be played in contemporary dress (though Verdi backdated it 150 years to the 18th century to suit the theater’s expectations), he effectively evoked a mythical/biblical theme of the fallen woman and her redemption. Verdi elevated her to the status of myth, as Mozart and Da Ponte had done with the unscrupulous and destructive Don Juan.

From the historical inhabitant of the Parisian demimonde Marie Duplessis (who counted Franz Liszt among her numerous lovers), to the fictional heroine Marguerite Gautier of the novel and play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (another of Marie’s lovers), to the Violetta Valéry of Verdi’s opera, this complex, contradictory and intriguing personality has fascinated many. Since the first film version in 1911, there have been more than a dozen major renditions on screen, including those featuring Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo and Isabelle Huppert.

The tragedy of La Traviata is essentially that of premature death, whose omnipresence is established in the first bar of the prelude. Violetta (violet is the traditional color of death in the Roman Catholic Church), condemned by incurable tuberculosis, has risen from a childhood of abuse and misery, to become a cultivated young woman of intelligence and depth with an authentic capacity to love.

It is the tragedy of the collision of the values of this authentic love with the rigidity of provincial bourgeois values. Verdi was no stranger to these conflicts and he frequently explored the conflicting demands of love and duty. As in many Verdi operas, there is, in the end, a suffering father. A well-meaning guardian of conventional morals, the father, Germont, in opposing the union of his son with a (now former) courtesan, would expel her from the “Garden of Eden” of committed love and banish her to return to the world of prostitution. He breaks her heart and her will, and he destroys the quality of life for what little time is left to her, all with the assurance that he is doing God’s will. “Dio mi guidò” (God guided me) he sings; “Dio m’esaudì” (God heard me). He recognizes his own culpability only at the moment of Violetta’s death.

Without endorsing psychobiography as the source of the composer’s inspiration, one also cannot ignore the long history of Verdi’s resentment of authority, the severance of his relationship to his own father, the conflicts with the provincial mentality of his native city of Busseto, the occasional difficulty with his beloved ex-father-in-law and patron Antonio Barezzi, and the undignified and bigoted denigration of his (not yet) wife Giuseppina on account of their open relationship and her “problematic” past. That Verdi intended in any way to portray his autobiography on the stage, I would strongly refute. But that he knew, first hand, the world that he was describing in La Traviata, there can be no doubt. His daring to bring such matters to the Italian stage was remarkable in the context of his time.

Similarly, Verdi knew Paris, a city with which he had a love-hate relationship all his life. His ambivalent feelings ran deep. He wanted its approbation and admiration, but deeply disliked working in the theaters there. When Violetta refers to Paris as a "popoloso deserto" (a populated desert), she is using a phrase to be found in one of the composer’s own letters.

The degree of Verdi’s courage and boldness can be measured by the reaction of the authorities. Two years earlier, when Verdi submitted the libretto to what would become Rigoletto, the Venetian censors deplored that the composer and his poet Francesco Maria Piave were not able to find a better vehicle for their talents than a libretto of “repulsive immorality and obscene triviality.” They could well have repeated that accusation against La Traviata but didn’t. Accustomed now to the composer’s intransigence and mindful of his increasing prestige, they settled for changing its title from Amore e morte (Love and Death) to La Traviata—a subtle but tempered bit of moralizing.

Could it be that they tacitly recognized not only the “repulsive immorality” of the Parisian drawing rooms, complete with carousing and gambling, but also that of Father Germont’s worldview? Might it be that they had recognized the moral triumph of the heroine, the woman “led astray,” who became a symbol of selfless love? Did they realize that Verdi had exalted a woman who transformed herself from a life of “obscene triviality” to “The Woman” who conquered the world’s heart as “La Traviata”?

Click here to return to the main La Traviata page.