Study Guide for Giuseppi Verdi (1813 1901): La Traviata

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1982

Violetta Valéry (a courtesan, dying of tuberculosis): Teresa Stratas

Alfredo Germont (young poet in love with Violetta): Placido Domingo

Giorgio Germont (Alfredo's father): Cornell MacNeill


When Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche, fell in love with a notorious if charming and brilliant courtesan named Marie Duplessis, his father was not amused. He feared that his naive son would ruin his reputation and his fortune by becoming involved with such a woman, and he forced the young man to break off the relationship.

Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, also had an affair with Marie in which she behaved rather badly, but he seems to have retained great affection for her even after breaking up with her.

Not much later, she died (at the age of 23) of tuberculosis, then called "consumption," the most commonly deadly disease in the 19th century. Dumas then avenged the younger generation by blending his own story with Agenor's by creating a novel, then a play, in which an idealized courtesan named Marguerite Gautier who loves camelias proves to be more loving and generous than the hero's father. Both works became hugely popular under the title La Dame aux camélias (or in English, Camille).

The story is a quintessential romantic attack on conventional bourgeois morality, arguing that a good heart is more important than propriety, that the social distinctions which split the beau monde (high society) from the demimonde (the world of illicit sex) are cruel and hypocritical, and that true love must triumph over all. That the story ends tragically is today often smugly said to indicate that the 19th-century readers could celebrate sexual freedom only when they doomed those who exercised it. But this is unfair. Dumas is expressing the romantic notion that the highest virtue in a human being is a good heart. If some people are too good for this world, that is the world's loss.

To understand the story, it is important to keep certain facts in mind. In mid-19th-century France, almost as much as in England, sexual hypocrisy was widespread. Prostitution and gambling were extremely popular and widespread even as they were being publically condemned on every hand. Men were expected to have mistresses whom they supported financially; but they were expected to conceal that fact, and they were expected not to fall in love with them. Such courtesans were not classed with common prostitutes, but there should be no illusion about their motivation for participating in these affairs: they were in it for the cash and gifts, and were faithful to their lovers only so long as it suited them. (It should be obvious, however, why an opera about a good-hearted courtesan would be appropriate in a film like Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts is enchanted by Violetta's story).

Any woman who slept with a man before marriage was thought to be "ruined" (i. e., rendered unfit to be wed), and should be shunned as a social leper. For many such women, some form of prostitution was the only means of survival. Respectable women feared and detested the courtesans, and would not permit them to mix in "polite society," as it was then called. Further, they were presumed to be predatory temptresses, bent on extracting their wealth from guileless young men, then abandoning them. The very most respectable families would not even want to be associated with another family in which one of the members was entangled with such a creature. It is this stereotype that Dumas set himself to break. It is a commentary on the complexity of moral attitudes during the time that the result was wildly popular.

In 1853, one year after Dumas dramatized his work, the Italian Giuseppi Verdi turned the story into one of the most popular operas ever written: La Traviata ("The Wayward Woman"), retaining the Parisian setting but changing the heroine's name to an Italian one: Violetta. The Italians were considerably more conservative in sexual matters than the French, and Verdi removed most of the seamier scenes from the original play and made his Violetta an almost angelic creature whose self-contempt and fear of risking love is almost incomprehensible unless one knows what everyone then knew: that she was a courtesan, loved only for her body and her high spirits, destined to die young and alone. This production hints at the shallowness of the affection her friends have for when, at the end of the first scene, one of her female guests placidly steals a valuable snuffbox off the mantle as she departs.

In Franco Zeffirelli's striking production of the opera, we scan across Paris to the lavishly decorated apartment of Violetta, and, as the music from the prelude to Act V is "previewed" (there is no overture) we see her as she will appear in the last scene, abandoned, destitute, dying, her belongings being carted off to pay her bills. One of the young men who has come to help transport the goods is entranced by her portrait, and then catches of glimpse of her. Violetta then seems to see herself as she was in happier days; and as we travel swiftly back in time, the first scene begins. Although this unusual opening is not present in the original opera, it reflects the opening of Dumas' novel, which depicts a dreary auction of the impoverished Marguerite's belongings.

In the first act, Alfredo tries to persuade Violetta to abandon her current lover, an older baron. To love this young man who has no money of his own (though his father is rich) would not only impoverish her, but open her up to disappointment. So long as she is the mistress of men like the baron, her heart remains untouched; but if she allows herself to believe in true love, she fears disappointment.

In the second act, they have moved to the country; but Alfredo does not understand that this expensive way of life is being paid for by Violetta. His father comes to persuade her to give him up. Although he learns that, contrary to his expectations, she is not being supported by Alfredo, it is even more unacceptable to him (and polite society in general) to see a respectable young man being supported by the income of a "fallen woman."

The third act features an elaborate ballet in which guests dressed as Spanish gypsies perform a dance combining the themes of passion, money, and death which run through Traviata. In order not to interfere with the viewing of the brilliant visual spectacle of this ballet, subtitles are omitted during this section, but you will want to know what is being sung, so a loose translation is offered here:

We are matadors from Madrid,
Heroes of the bull-ring.
We have come to enjoy the celebration
That Paris makes over the fattend ox.
There a story we can tell, if you'll listen,
which will tell how we can love!

Listen!
There's a handsome, bold
Matador from Biscay
Strong of arm, and proud;
He is the lord of the arena.
He fell madly in love
With a young woman from Andalucia;
But the disdainful beauty
Spoke to her admirer thus:

"I want to see you kill
Five bulls in a single day;
And, if you succeed, when you return
I will give you my hand and heart."

"Yes," he said to her; and the matador
Stepped into the ring,
And became the conqueror of five bulls
which he stretched out in the arena.

The other guests then sing:

Bravo, bravo, matador,
You have shows yourself to be heroic
And in this way have proved
your love to the young woman!

The bullfighters reply:

Then, he returned, through the applause,
To the beauty he loved
And embraced his much-desired prize
In his loving arms.

Other guests:

This is how matadors
Prove themselves conquerors of women.

Bullfighters:

But we have softer hearts,
It's enough for us to have fun and games.

All:

Yes, happy friends, let us first
Try our luck at games of chance;
Let us open the contest
To the bold gambler.

(Translation by Paul Brians)

In this act, her sacrifice is completely misunderstood by Alfredo, which is partly as she wished it; but he behaves ignobly in deliberately treating her as a whore before a large assembly, provoking the Baron to challenge him to a duel. Note that Alfredo had come to the party bent on challenging the Baron, but in the end it is the Baron who defends Violetta by challenging the young man by ritually slapping him with his glove.

In the last scene, Alfredo has gone on a long voyage to forget her; but his father, realizing the true nobility of Violetta, has written to him to tell him the truth. She is hanging on, hour by hour, hoping to be reconciled with him before she dies.

By simplifying the emotions, purifying the heroine and pouring into this opera many of his most achingly beautiful melodies, Verdi created one of the masterpieces of romantic opera. Listen closely to the aria in the second act in which Alfredo sings of his love reaching across the universe. The melody recurs from time to time as Violetta is thinking of his love for her, including briefly just before the end. Contemporary critics usually scorn what they call sentimentality; but the romantics meant to soften the heart and render the audience more humane, tolerant, and loving by telling this kind of story. Thanks to Verdi's genius, for audiences willing to set aside their sophisticated skepticism, it can still work.


A Note on Watching Opera

Opera is drama set to music, and both are important. The melodies of arias (solos), the complex interweaving of contrasting melodies in duets and trios, and the rousing harmonies of choruses are the very heart and soul of opera. Emotional raptures which might seem exaggerated in the theater are brought to life by music. It is crucial not to get so wrapped up in following the plot that you don't pay attention to the music. This is, above all, one of the most glorious musical compositions produced in the Romantic era, filled with memorable melodies, duets, and choruses.

One of Verdi's favorite devices is to have one or more singers perform a throbbing rhythmic pattern while another sings a long, soaring melodic line over the top. Listen for this effect in the duet between Violetta and Alfredo's father at her place in the country, and again in the duet between Alfredo and Violetta when he returns at the end of the opera.

If you have never seen an opera before, it may take some time to get used to hearing characters sing their lines instead of speaking them. There can be a certain comic quality to some of the chorus' unison exclamations, for instance; but such artificialities are required by the music; and experienced opera-goers take them for granted.

When you begin writing about the opera, please do not use the word "music" to mean the orchestral accompaniment as contrasted with the "singing." Singing is music, the main form of music in an opera. If you feel that the "singing" gets in the way of the "music" then you aren't really experiencing what opera is.

Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written; hence you will hear these Parisians conversing in perfect Italian. The reason for not performing the opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. Instead, to assist those of you who are not fluent in Italian, the filmmaker has provided subtitles (supertitles are used in most modern American opera productions for the same reason). If you are not used to it, this may be a bit distracting at first, but without them you would get much less of the story. After a while reading the titles becomes automatic. Because they appear at the very bottom of the screen, it is important to sit close enough to read them clearly and to have a clear view of them, without some other student's shoulder cutting them off. Choose your seat carefully. If you are watching the opera on DVD in private, be sure to use the menu to turn on the subtitles before you begin watching.

When the chorus or other singers begin to repeat the same lyrics over and over, the subtitles cease in order to let you concentrate on the music. During the ballet, much of the time there are no subtitles, to let you concentrate on the spectacle without distraction (see lyrics above); but the rest of the time you can be assured that if there are no titles on the screen, the words being sung are repetitions of phrases which have already been translated for you.

Important note: If the subtitles do not appear when the singers first start singing, go back to the main menu and choose English subtitles.


First mounted June 17, 1995.

Last revised March 5, 2007

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