Wed, Jan 30th, at 6.45pm
‘Traviata’, as Maria Callas showed, again and again, is an operatic treasure.
Guiseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”, his nineteenth opera, premiered at Venice’s La Fenice Theatre on March 6th, 1853 – and that below-par opening night was a disaster. The soprano, who looked anything but consumptive, was greeted with derision at Violetta’s death scene – “A complete fiasco” was the composer’s verdict. It was a shattering blow to him, as ‘Rigoletto’, had premiered to wild enthusiasm in the ‘Fenice’ only two years earlier. But he held to his belief that he had written a great opera. He wrote to a friend: “’La Traviata’ was a fiasco … And, what’s worse, they laughed … Am I wrong or are they? The last word on ‘La Traviata’ was not heard last night. They will hear it again — and we shall see!”
Antonio Gallo, who ran the Teatro San Benadetto in the same city, agreed with Verdi – he pleaded for permission to stage the ‘failed’ opera. When, after some revisions, it was performed in Gallo’s theatre and was received with acclaim. Ever since, La Traviata (‘the woman who strayed’) has been among the most popular of all operas. The role of Violetta is one of the most demanding in all opera. The soprano is on an emotional roller coaster and she needs great versatility in acting and in voice to do justice to the part – Violetta goes from frivolous pleasure-seeker to a figure of genuinely tragic stature. It can be a monstrous part for a soprano. For Callas, with her “rainbow of tones” (Matthew Boyden), it was her favourite role. She may have been the greatest ever in the part – sadly she made no proper studio recording, but what we have of her in that role is matchless.
‘Traviata’ is just one other opera that survived calamitous premieres to become worldwide favourites – many believe that ‘Carmen’ first-night fiasco hastened Bizet’s early death; Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”, was likewise greeted with derision.
‘Traviata’ is packed with marvellous arias, duets, ensembles and lovely tunes. Denis Forman, in “The Good Opera Guide”, is emphatic: “’Traviata’ is a great opera: the music speaks to us directly … we believe in the characters … We can take the opera to our hearts lock, stock and barrel because of the warmth and pathos of the story. Alpha-plus.” It has been called “the first grown-up opera about contemporary life”.
The plot: Boy falls in love with girl; she’s not ‘good enough’ for his family; under parental pressure they separate; they get back together but it’s too late …
The real-life story happening which inspired ‘La Traviata’ is in itself a fascinating tale. Its subject was a cause of scandal for many in Verdi’s day. The libretto, by Piave, is adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ play, ‘La Dame aux Camelias’ – based on an event in Dumas’ own life. Its premiere in Paris, on February 2nd, 1852, with the legendary actress, Sarah Bernhardt, memorable as the heroine, was a triumph. The novelist and playwright had a year-long affair with the Parisian courtesan, Marie Du Plessis. When it ended she returned to Paris where she died aged only twenty-three
Duplessis, though of tender years, was a famous courtesan who had been mistress to a number of wealthy men and had married twice; at seventeen her father had sold her to a seventy-year-old bachelor. When she died, greatly in debt, her belongings were sold. Charles Dickens attended the auction and wrote: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne D’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness”.
It’s Verdi’s magical music, the inherent drama of the plot, the wonderfully moving story that unfolds along with a soprano role that is a tour de force, which make ‘La Traviata’ so popular. The highlights are numerous. The preludes to Acts 1 and 3, The ‘Brindisi’ or drinking song, Alfredo’s first love song, ‘Un di felice’, and the marvellous ending to Act 1 are all genuine showstoppers. Then there’s the magical, if sad, duet, ‘Ditte Alla Giovinne’, in which Violetta asks Germont to explain to his son, Alfredo, why she’s leaving him. (Try to come by a celebrated 1920s recording of it by Amelita Galli-Curci and Guiseppe de Luca. Likewise, ‘Parigi o cara’, the duet towards the end, with John McCormack and Lucrezia Bori). And there’s so much more of beauty in its score. In fact, I can think of no other opera (except Mozart’s miraculous work, “The Marriage of Figaro”) which has more showstopping ‘hits’.
With lavish period sets and costumes and directed by one of the great Directors of theatre and opera, Sir Richard Eyre, this production with Anthony Pappano at the podium, should be magnificent. A screening not to be missed. It’s Live at SGC on Wed, Jan 30th at 6.45PM. Be there. Gan teip. [From Jim Ryan]