La traviata has all the essential ingredients to make it one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. The courtesan who finds true love but is deprived of respectability and who dies prematurely of consumption, abandoned and destitute, is grand opera at its very best.
Piave’s libretto, based on the true story
The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, is a tender story of ill-fated love, set in the elegant world of Parisian High Society and told through some of Verdi’s most enchanting melodies. The drinking song from Act 1 is certainly the best known and loved theme from the entire operatic repertoire.
Yet the first performance in 1853 at La Fenice in Venice was, for a variety of reasons, a complete fiasco. Verdi, while still having confidence in his work, anticipated a poor reaction. According to contemporary reports the difficulties were compounded by a cast that had serious reservations about the piece. They found the setting too modern, the plot scandalous and the score excessively innovative and consequently demonstrated a singular lack of conviction and commitment in their performance. Violetta, the tubercular heroine, was played by Fanny Salvini Donatelli whose generous proportions were considered physically inappropriate to the role of the emaciated, consumptive heroine. And the story was simply too close to home to be digested immediately. It took some little time before audiences could come to terms with such a realistic and to them, unpalatable presentation of life. An opera based on the story of a courtesan who goes off to live with a man to whom she is not married was not quite the thing a respectable young lady should be seen at.
The revival a year later was a clamorous success.
It is widely held that Verdi’s domestic situation was the inspiration to set Dumas’ play to music. At the time, he was condemned for “living in sin” with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, whose background was in many ways similar to that of the protagonist of the play. As a consequence perhaps,
La traviata was a new development in romantic opera in its treatment of the heroine. No longer was she a victim of violent, passionate emotions on a grand and melodramatic scale, but more of subtle and refined feelings of tenderness, pain, love and resignation. These qualities permeate a role of formidable vocal and histrionic proportions, requiring of the interpreter vocal displays typical of the “bel-canto” era, together with the more intense and sustained vocalising that defines the later “verismo” period.