All you need to know about the world’s most popular opera – right here…
What is the story?
Late 19th Century Paris: Violetta is a high-class courtesan and the most celebrated figure of a glamorous social scene. She loves her life – carefree, attached to no-one, her own woman. But Violetta is also seriously ill.
Enter Alfredo, a poet who shows Violetta real, unconditional love for the first time. She falls for him and, abandoning her career, the two escape to a country retreat to live in domestic bliss. That is until Alfredo’s father shows up. He is unhappy with how his son’s relationship with a ‘fallen woman’ is damaging the family’s reputation and persuades Violetta to end things with Alfredo via a letter and return to the city.
Much later, Alfredo’s father is remorseful and finally reveals to his son why Violetta left him. He rushes to be with her, but Violetta’s sickness is now much worse… is it too late?
Who are the key characters?
Violetta Valéry — a courtesan (soprano)
Alfredo Germont — a young bourgeois (tenor)
Giorgio Germont — his father (baritone)
Baron Douphol — client of Violetta and Alfredo’s rival (baritone)
Flora — friend of Violetta (mezzo-soprano)
Annina — Violetta’s maid
There is also a full Chorus, who play party guests in Acts I and II, creating a visual spectacle – as well as an incredible sound!
What is the music like?
La traviata features one of opera’s most famous tunes: ‘Brindisi’. In Act I, Alfredo is persuaded to make a toast and in rip-roaring waltz time, sings ‘Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ (which could be roughly translated as ‘let’s get drunk’), with Violetta, and then the whole chorus, joining in!
The opera opens on a very different note, with a Prelude which trails the whole piece. The first sounds are a lonely and ominously tragic melody in B minor played by the violins only. The audience knows from the off that this story won’t end well…
The music for Violetta herself changes throughout the piece as her character develops, making the role very challenging. Her showstopping aria ‘Sempre libera’ (‘Always free’) in Act I is full of vocal fireworks, mirroring her whirlwind of a life, while in Act II, she has expansive passages expressing huge emotions, as real love and real heartbreak change her. In Act III as she nears the end, Violetta’s music has an almost spiritual quality. Verdi also sometimes breaks up her vocal line with rests, depicting her struggle to breathe.
What is this production like?
Alessandro Talevi’s production of La traviata (new in 2014) is set in Belle Époque Paris, updating the action from the 1850s to a more fluid time of opium dens and nightclubs, with Violetta as a vortex of this heady underworld.
Violetta is modelled on two notable courtesans of the period: La Belle Otero and Liane de Pougy. Both these women were part of the most elite inner circles of society, whispering in the ear of politicians, so were highly influential individuals. Costumes, designed by Madeleine Boyd, are influenced by their lavish, flowing, highly romantic and slightly scandalous style.
This staging also looks at the hypocrisy of society – by Act III, her party guests from Act I have abandoned and literally look down on her. The macabre closing image is a shadowy audience of masked revellers applauding Violetta on her death bed…
Who was the composer?
La traviata was written by one of the best-loved operatic composers in history – Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Born in Italy, Verdi composed 26 different operas during his lifetime, including Aida and Rigoletto.
Verdi always looked for strong subjects featuring relatable, human characters, often breaking with convention. He had a knack for taking figures marginalised by society and telling their stories – putting them centre stage. A courtesan suffering from tuberculosis, a disease which was rampant at the time, is the perfect example.
Verdi conducting the Paris Opera premiere of Aida in 1880 © Adrien Marie
A little history
In 1852, Verdi saw a play adaptation of Alexander Dumas fils’ scandalous 1848 novel The Lady of the Camellias, and was so inspired that, according to reports, he immediately began to compose music for what would become La traviata.
A commission from La Fenice in Venice allowed this idea to become a reality, and Verdi set to work with librettist Francesco Maria Piave on “a subject for our own age”. Strict censorship in Venice inevitably threw a spanner in the works. To put a courtesan on the stage was controversial enough, but Verdi’s wish that the opera be in contemporary dress was several steps too far – the censors insisted it be set 100 years earlier in case, somehow, the immorality leapt into the auditorium!
The premiere in March 1853 was not a huge success, mainly due to casting – acclaimed soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli did not apparently make a believable consumption sufferer and was heckled by the audience. However, after some revisions, and with a new Violetta, La traviata began to spread like wildfire, reaching Vienna, London, Paris and New York by 1856. Today it remains the most popular opera worldwide, still breaking audience’s hearts 170 years later.
Poster for the premiere of La traviata in 1853
Did you know?
— Violetta has consumption (tuberculosis), so called because of the dramatic weight loss associated with the disease. Consumption crops up a lot in literature, art and opera of the 19th Century as it was thought of as a romantic disease (it wouldn’t be the same if Violetta died of dysentery…) It was also believed to assist artistic talent, maybe because of the fever involved. Poet Lord Byron went as far as to write “I should like to die from consumption”!
— The character of Violetta (from Dumas’ novel) was based on a real person called Marie Duplessis. In the 1840s, she rose from poverty to be one of the most glamorous figures in Paris through working as a ‘mistress’ – amassing lovers of increasing wealth and status. However, she contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of just 23.
— La traviata features THAT Pretty Woman (1990) scene “it was so good, I almost peed my pants!” But there are also parallels to the opera throughout the whole film. Both Vivian and Violetta have to make difficult decisions around their place in ‘polite society’ as prostitutes. And in the final scene, Edward’s last, dramatic attempt to persuade Vivian to stay is accompanied by music from the opera.
— Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) is inspired by La traviata and tells the same story: a celebrated courtesan (Satine in Moulin Rouge, Violetta in La traviata) gives in to the genuine love of a young poet/writer, but ends up selflessly sacrificing her own happiness. Most strikingly, both characters are reunited with their lover at the end, only to die in his arms from the same disease.
Julia Roberts and Richard Gere at La traviata in Pretty Woman (1990)
La traviata is sung in Italian with English titles and lasts approx. 2 hours 45 minutes.