Opera in three acts
Music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after the novella La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils
First performance: Theater La Fenice, Venice. March 6, 1853
Act I. Fall in Paris. We meet our heroine. Violetta Valery, a beautiful, engaging courtesan. In the world of the rich and powerful of Paris in the mid 19th century, social conventions bound everyone to a lifestyle that on the surface was righteous and proper. But beneath the surface existed another world – a half world, or as it is in French a demi-monde, where the nobility of the time could enjoy every excess their wealth could offer them, including the company of women. These courtesans were more than prostitutes – they were kept women who were expected to entertain for their patron, go to the theater and opera with him, and perform other services within the boundaries of the conventions of the demi-monde. It is within this setting that we meet our heroine, who is holding a supper party for her patron and lover, the Baron Duphol. Gaston introduces his friend, Alfredo Germont to Violetta. He explains that Alfredo came every day during her recent illness to inquire after her health. It is clear that Violetta has been ill, but her friends do not realize she has the scourge of the 19th century, tuberculosis. In the famous Brindisi, or drinking song, Alfredo sings a toast to love, to which she replies. Here is Verdi at his most tuneful, ever balancing serious art with melodies that everyone adores. As the guests go off to dance, Violetta collapses in a fit of coughing. Quickly recovering, she tells them to proceed to the ballroom, but Alfredo lingers behind and declares his love for her. She laughs at his ardor, but is touched by his sincerity. She dismisses him, but tells him that he may return when the camellia she has given him has faded. The guests leave and she remains alone to consider Alfredo’s invitation to love. She realizes that the social conventions that bind her life make true love impossible, and she resolves to continue her life of feverish gaity in the thrilling aria Sempre Libera, or Always Free.
Act II. Violetta’s country house in the spring. For several months Violetta has been living happily with Alfredo. In an expression of naïve, exuberant love, Alfredo tells us that his soul is in heaven when he is with Violetta. Alfredo surprises the maid, on her return from Paris. She reluctantly tells him that Violetta has been selling off her property to pay for the life she is now leading. In his realization of his wounded pride, Alfredo leaves for Paris immediately to stop this. In his absence, Violetta receives a visit from his father, Giorgio Germont. Here follows the conflict that drives the story – a well to do businessman from the provinces has come to confront the courtesan he believes is ruining his son’s life. And, he tells her that their illicit love affair is the reason why his daughter cannot be married. Now, we might expect this music to be filled with anger, yet Verdi treats us to a lyricism that is at once simple, but compellingly beautiful. This tells us that this father, our antagonist, if you will, is not an ogre, but a well meaning, gentle man who is motivated by his need to meet social conventionalities. At first, Violetta assumes Germont wants her to leave Alfredo until the wedding is over. But at is not what the old man wants. He reminds her that her past will always haunt them, and that true love can never be hers. In despair, Violetta tells him that Alfredo is all she lives for, and such a sacrifice would kill her. This is not simply melodrama. For in the months she has been in the country with Alfredo, her health has improved substantially and she truly believes she has escaped her past, and her illness. Giorgio cruelly tells her that someday her beauty will fade and Alfredo, like all men, will grow tired of her. Succumbing to his unrelenting demands, Violetta sacrifices herself to Germont’s wishes, asking only to be embraced as a daughter and to allow her to break the news to Alfredo. As you listen to these excerpts, you will realize why La traviata is so beloved – it is not simply the moving story – it is the inventiveness of Verdi’s melodies – one after the next — simple, moving melodies accompanied by poignant yet basic accompaniment. Having won, Germont leaves Violetta to decide how to break it off with Alfredo. She wants to write him a letter and leave before he returns. Just then, Alfredo surprises her. Having finished her letter to him, she says she is leaving for a short while, but will return. Then turning to leave, she frantically confesses her love for him. Aflredo reads the letter and is crushed beyond belief. His father reappears to offer consolation and to ask him to come home to the family that loves him. Angrily rejecting this suggestion, Alfredo notices an invitation for that evening from Flora, one of Violetta’s friends, and he concludes that this is where he will find her.
At Flora’s a magnificent party is underway complete with gambling, dancing, entertainment and gypsy fortune tellers. Violetta has returned to her former lover, Baron Duphol, and arrives with him. Alfredo then enters, to the surprise of everyone. He gambles with the Baron and wins a substantial sum. Violetta begs Alfredo to leave, but he forces her to explain her behavior; in desperation, and to protect Alfredo’s father, she says that she no longer loves him. At this, Aflredo calls the guests to witness that he pays his debts in full and throws his winnings at the face of the courtesan. Flora’s guests are outraged at his cruel behavior, and the Baron challenges Alfredo to a duel.
Act III. Violetta’s bedroom. It is winter, cold, desolate, as the prelude to Act III, reminiscent of the overture, tells us. Violetta’s health has declined, the Baron has left her, and her money is almost spent. She tells Annina to give half of what little remains on the poor. She has received a letter from Alfredo’s father explaining that Alfredo the Baron was wounded in his duel with Alfredo and that Alfredo has left Paris. He tells her that his son now knows the truth of her sacrifice and that they will both soon return to ask her forgiveness. What a marvelous invention Verdi creates for this scene. A solo violin melody, touchingly delicate, as Violetta rereads this moving letter. Too late, she cries, and in a magnificent aria, she realizes her life will soon be over. Alfredo arrives and for a moment, he convinces her she will recover and again be happy. It is too late for her, and she gives Alfredo a locket that she tells him to give to the woman he will someday meet and marry. She asks him to be happy, and remember her. Reconciled to both father and son, and no longer bound by social convention, Violetta’s sacrifice is complete as the curtain falls.