Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Based on La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils
Violetta Valéry, a beautiful Parisian (soprano—the highest female voice) Alfredo Germont, a young man (tenor—the highest male voice) Flora, Violetta’s friend (mezzo-soprano—a middle-range female voice) Gastone, Violetta’s friend (tenor—the highest male voice) Duphol, a wealthy baron (bass—the lowest male voice) Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father (baritone—a middle-range male voice)
So, What’s Going On?
At her home in Paris, Violetta Valéry (vee-oh-LEHT-tah vahl-eh-REE), a well-known courtesan and companion of the wealthy Baron Duphol (doo-FOHL), hosts a late-night party for some friends. She’s been feeling ill lately, but has recovered slightly and decided not to let her sickness get in the way of a good time.
Among the guests are Flora (FLO-rah) and Gastone (gah-STOH-neh), who introduce Violetta to Alfredo (ahl-FREH-doh), a young gentleman who confesses he’s been her secret admirer for an entire year.
Take a listen… VIDEO
Alfredo and Violetta lead the chorus in one of opera’s most famous tunes, a “brindisi” or a toast, to kick off Violetta’s party. Though the music is often associated with the Italian heritage of its composer (and the singers are, in fact, performing in Italian), the scene is meant to remind audiences of a typical salon in Paris.
Alfredo has noticed Violetta’s health is failing, and once alone with her, declares his desire to love and care for her…forever. (As in, he wants her to give up her life as a paid escort and take a chance on real love.)
Knowing her illness is quite possibly fatal, Violetta suspects a true love like the one Alfredo offers would only end in tragedy. She tries to focus on simple pleasures like wine and dancing instead, but the damage is already done. She’s fallen desperately in love.
Take a listen… VIDEO
Violetta’s famous Act 1 aria, “Sempre libera” (or “Forever free”), is a massive musical and dramatic feat—requiring immense vocal flexibility and quite a few mood swings. Check out how the soprano switches gears in the second section (starting at 5:47) as Violetta tries to convince herself she’s better off without Alfredo’s love.
Three months later, Violetta and Alfredo are living together in a country home outside the city (yup, you’re right—that was fast). The couple can’t marry due to Violetta’s history as a paid companion, but still, they’re blissfully happy. That is until Alfredo discovers their happiness is being funded entirely by Violetta, who’s been secretly selling off her possessions. Feeling ashamed he’s let his love pay his way for so long, Alfredo rushes off to Paris to straighten out his finances.
Take a listen… VIDEO
Full of remorse that he’s put Violetta in debt, Alfredo resolves to do something to make things right. How does the music help express Alfredo’s anxiety and frustration in this moment? Can you guess at his emotions even if you can’t understand the lyrics?
Left alone, Violetta is confronted by an unexpected visitor: Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (JYOR-jyoh jzhehr-MOHN). He announces his daughter, Alfredo’s sister, has a fiancé who’s threatening to break off the engagement because of Alfredo’s decision to live with a former courtesan. Germont insists his daughter’s future depends on Violetta giving up Alfredo for good. Backed into a hopeless corner, Violetta agrees to sacrifice Alfredo and return to her old life.
Take a listen… VIDEO
Violetta gives in to Germont’s request and asks him to tell his virtuous daughter about the sacrifice that’s being made in her name. Listen to how easily these voices blend with one another, even though the characters are in conflict. Why do you think the composer had them harmonize so beautifully in this moment?
Once Germont leaves, Violetta writes a farewell letter to Alfredo (without explaining the reason for her departure), but Alfredo returns from Paris and interrupts her. She says a tearful goodbye, and a confused Alfredo thinks everything is completely fine until he reads the message she’s left behind. Believing Violetta has abandoned him for her ex, Baron Duphol, Alfredo instantly plots revenge. Germont conveniently re-enters to console his son, but Alfredo, noticing a party invitation among Violetta’s letters, insists on returning to the city to confront the woman who broke his heart.
At the party, emotions run high as Violetta turns up on the arm of Baron Duphol, and Alfredo enters alone. The two men play out their rivalry at the gambling table, and when Alfredo keeps winning, Duphol suggests they raise the stakes after dinner (read: have an old-fashioned duel to see who’ll get the girl).
Take a listen… VIDEO
Party host Flora hires gypsy and matador dancers to entertain her guests. What about this music makes it feel as though it comes from a country other than France (where the story takes place) or Italy (where it was first performed)?
Fearing for Alfredo’s life, Violetta begs him to leave, but he refuses. Instead, he calls the party guests before him in a jealous rage and throws his winnings in Violetta’s face, claiming he’s now repaid any debt he may owe her. Violetta collapses, and Germont reappears to admonish his son for treating a woman so cruelly. (Ironic? Just a bit.)
During the annual Paris Carnival, Violetta remains inside. Her illness has brought her close to death, and she’s been living alone with her maid, Annina (ah-NEE-nah). A doctor visits Violetta’s bedside, and, though he claims he’s optimistic about her condition, Violetta knows he’s lying and that her days are numbered. Her only hope lies in a letter from Germont, who reports that he’s finally told Alfredo the story of her great sacrifice…and that her lost love is coming to beg her forgiveness.
Take a listen… VIDEO
Certain she’s dying, Violetta asks God to forgive her and welcome her into heaven. Listen for the plaintive melody and melancholic accompaniment that match Violetta’s despair. (Does anybody have any tissues handy?)
Can Alfredo make it to Violetta before her time runs out? And will the force of his true love be enough to save her?
Good to Know About the Opera
If you were to ask any opera fan about the greatest love stories in all of musical history, odds are
La traviata would make it into the top ten… at least. Violetta and Alfredo’s romance, which (spoiler alert) doesn’t go according to plan, makes pretty much every operagoer’s list of the most moving tales ever to grace the operatic stage.
But at the time it was written, some theatergoers may have considered
La traviata to be very modern…and maybe even a little scandalous. This was most likely because the story centered on an up-to-date tale of forbidden love in the 1850s and featured scenes with members of the upper classes behaving less than properly for the period, not to mention a heroine who was a well-paid courtesan. This was a very unusual choice by Verdi–– to set an opera in the “present” day with characters that would be immediately recognizable to viewers as figures from their own social circles. To avoid offending anyone, producers moved the action back a century, making it harder for audiences to see any connection to their real-life society. And the trick worked. La traviata quickly became a runaway success.
In this performance, the WNO has pushed the story forward to the turn of the twentieth century, almost halfway between Verdi’s time and our own. Directors often move the action of
La traviata up by several years to help audience members understand that Violetta’s story could happen to anyone. Still, no matter the era in which La traviata is presented, the emotions experienced by the characters—joy, excitement, worry, fear, love, and many more—should be easy to identify…especially if you listen closely.
Good to Know About Violetta
We mentioned Violetta is a courtesan, but what does that mean exactly?
First of all, as a courtesan, Violetta would not have been a “prostitute” in the way we’ve come to understand the word (the way it’s frequently used in literature and film). A woman like Violetta would have engaged in physical relationships with men outside of the bonds of marriage, but she wouldn’t have received instant payment, nor would she be allowed to associate with more than one man at any given time.
Here’s some added historical context to give a better sense of the life Violetta may have lived:
A courtesan held a higher social status than most female sex workers of the period. They typically had only one patron and had access to wealth and privilege usually only reserved for the aristocracy. Impoverished women may have felt such a job was a form of empowerment rather than imprisonment, particularly as they were allowed to speak openly and enjoy Parisian nightlife and culture the way a man could.
To become a courtesan, a woman had to be either incredibly beautiful, incredibly resourceful, or both. Many courtesans were actresses or dancers who attracted suitors willing to pay for clothes, jewelry, music and drawing lessons, and much more in an effort to keep these women by their sides. In return, the women would consider themselves “taken,” and were obliged not to be seen in public with other partners.
Marie Duplessis, who inspired the character that eventually became Violetta, taught herself some of the skills that would help her blend in with the upper class. Her accomplishments enabled her to secure enough money and power to be able to travel outside her native country and to attend high-profile social events.
Courtesans often moved in the same Parisian circles as many of the most famous men of the time (heads of state, popular writers, well-known artists, etc.). Learning to Listen
Going to the opera means you’ll have to start listening in a new way if you want to take in everything the music and the voices have to offer. And guess what? This is less complicated than it sounds.
Try thinking of opera singing as its own type of language or speech. When we’re speaking, our emotions can change the way our voices sound from moment to moment—and one word can have a thousand different meanings depending on
how you say it (loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, with a high- or low-pitched voice, etc.). The same is true for the characters in an opera. Each voice you’ll hear will have its own special flavor depending on who the characters are and what they’re saying.
Violetta, for example, is a lively young woman who’s also very ill. Her voice, therefore, will be on the higher side (to provide a clue that she’s spirited and youthful) and will occasionally sound forceful (to remind us she likes to celebrate and have fun), but will also have softer elements and feature some breathy pauses (to let us know she has a terrible cough).
Alfredo, on the other hand, is a serious yet innocent young man. His long, unbroken musical phrases (his “sentences”) reflect how powerfully he feels for Violetta, but his higher, sunnier voice helps to communicate his shyness and lack of experience.
When in doubt about how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking, always pay close attention to exactly how they
sound. (The instruments in the orchestra will give you hints as well.) Check This Out…
The creators of this production of
La traviata have decided to tell the story in flashback, with the audience watching as Violetta remembers the events of her life from inside a hospital. Why do you think this choice was made? Does it shed new light on the plot for you? Operagoers, singers, and critics have famously said of Violetta that the role requires three different types of voice (one full of rapid movement known as
coloratura, one powerful and dramatic, and one lyrical and sweet). Do you think Violetta’s singing style evolves over the course of the opera? If so, when are these changes most obvious? Why do you think Verdi gave Violetta such vocal variety? Verdi was an undisputed master of drama and foreshadowing, and from the very first notes of the opera, audiences are given hints as to how Violetta’s story will end. What musical clues do you notice throughout the performance? Can you guess the fate of the main characters before the final curtain? (Hint: Listen closely to the opening music for the first and third acts.) Think About This…
Mid-nineteenth-century Italian opera (usually referred to as “
” or “beautiful singing”) often featured solo songs or arias that included two sections: one pensive and slow, the other fast and furious. Can you identify any arias like this in
? Do you feel this type of song structure gives you added insight into the characters’ thoughts and emotions? Or would you prefer they stick to one type of style for each solo number?
Why do you think Violetta’s confrontation with Alfredo’s father, Germont, comes at the mid-way point in the opera and lasts so long in comparison to the other scenes? Does the music in this moment feel different from that of the rest of the opera? How so? (More food for thought: Do you think Germont is a villain? A good man? A good father? An example of male privilege?)
“La traviata” translates as “the woman led astray” or “the lost woman.” Still, celebrated soprano Renée Fleming has said of Violetta that she “ultimately has more integrity than every other character” in the opera. Do you agree? Do you feel Violetta has been led astray? In what way is she lost? Do you think of her as compromised or problematic? Pure and heroic? Or a combination of good
In Act 3, Violetta remarks that though the Paris Carnival is happening outside her door, many poor Parisians are suffering in the streets. She then donates half of her remaining fortune to those in need.
While partygoers shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty about having a good time, it’s never a bad idea to mix fun with philanthropy. Try organizing your next get-together with friends around a cause that inspires you. Do some research and share your thoughts on a charity or activist movement with your guests. Ask them to help out by donating their time (or money, if they choose).
Got a passion for puppies? Introduce your friends to the
ASPCA and ask if they can give an hour or two to their local animal shelter each month. Concerned about children who may not get enough food at home or babies who may need special medical care? See if your friends are willing to volunteer for an organization like No Kid Hungry or March of Dimes.
If you’re comfortable sharing on social media, post photos of your party and ideas for making a difference to your favorite platform using the hashtag
Teacher & Parent Guide
Parents and Teachers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of opera, but just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and eventually made its way to the United States (that’s right, Americans write operas, too). As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing.
or, literally, “The Woman Led Astray,” was the Italian title given to the operatic story based on La traviata La dame aux camellias (“The Lady of the Camellias”) by Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the man who brought us The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers). In his tale, Dumas fils sheds light on the often-overlooked world of the poor and destitute, which included young women of limited means who turned to prostitution as a way of entering higher society. Composer Giuseppe Verdi felt stories like those of Dumas’s heroine, Marguerite Gautier (based on a real-life courtesan and renamed “Violetta” in the opera), were of paramount importance in the mid-nineteenth century—and the composer even called La dame aux camellias the “subject for our time.”
Written with Verdi’s own stylistic spin on a time-honored Italian tradition known as “
bel canto” (“beautiful singing”), La traviata lends itself to themes of morality and hypocrisy among the nobility that posed a problem for its original producers. Debuted in Venice in 1853, the opera was re-imagined as an eighteenth-century story so as not to affront contemporary viewers with its “promiscuous” lead character—and perhaps so as not to annoy those audience members who may have felt the depictions of a harsh and judgmental upper class (embodied by the hero’s father, Giorgio Germont) hit too close to home.
No matter the setting, the opera challenges audiences to consider how society treats those who have been shunned, outcast, or who represent aspects of humanity that are customarily kept quiet. And, though perhaps much less cutting-edge by today’s standards,
La traviata continues to ask viewers to reflect on our collective definitions of “good,” “bad,” “immoral,” and “virtuous,” as well as on our thoughts regarding male-female power dynamics in life and love.
For further learning, check out:
Full-length recordings of Verdi’s A pre-opera listen is always a good idea before heading to the theater. Plus, an opera recording is a good place to begin training your ears to listen differently by focusing on the ways in which the musical phrases echo normal human speech and by paying special attention to the timbre (or color) of the voices, which will vary according to the nature of each character. La traviata.
Some recordings you may want to check out:
La traviata starring Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini
La traviata starring Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, conducted by Richard Bonynge (Decca), 1980
La traviata starring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, conducted by Carlo Rizzi (Deutsche Grammophon), 2005
The original novel. La dame aux camellias, though it tackles subjects that were scandalous for some, paints a vivid picture of the world in which Violetta and Alfredo would have lived. The piece was said to be semi-autobiographical, which perhaps gives it some added authenticity. Movies based on Dumas’s and Verdi’s creations. Hollywood has long been fascinated by the story of La dame aux camellias and has produced many films based wholly (or partially) on the tragedy. Though they may not always be suitable for younger viewers, some movies you may want to explore include: Camille, Pretty Woman, Moulin Rouge, and the cinematic version of the opera directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
You’re ready for
Verdi’s . La traviata