La Traviata
Words: F.M. Piave after A. Dumas
Music: Guiseppe Verdi
Written in: Authored Date:

Act One - Violetta's house in Paris
Violetta, a courtesan under the protection of Baron Duphol, is entertaining; although she is a very sick woman, she insists upon leading a hectic social life. She is introduced to Alfredo Germont, who has been in love with her for some time and is leading her guests off to dance when she is seized with a coughing fit; she has to withdraw. Alfredo joins her, protesting his love, which she gently discourages. After the party has finally broken up, Violetta wonders if Alfredo is the true love of her dreams; in the end, however, she believes that her death must come in the 'vortex' of hollow pleasures that make up her life.

Act Two, Scene One - A country house near Paris: three months later
Violetta and Alfredo are now living together. When he learns from her maid that Violetta has sold her possessions to pay their debts, Alfredo leaves for Paris to raise the necessary money. In his absence, Violetta receives an unexpected call from his father. He begs her to break off the attachment; otherwise his daughter's marriage into a respectable family will be threatened. Violetta finally agrees and, when Germont has left, writes a farewell note. Alfredo returns and Violetta arranges for him to be given the note after she has gone. When he reads it he refuses the consolation of his father and rushes off to Paris to avenge himself for what he believes to be a betrayal.

Act Two, Scene Two - Flora's house in Paris: the same night
A party is in progress. Alfredo appears alone, and then Violetta escorted by Baron Duphol. The two men play cards and Alfredo wins. When she has her chance,Violetta sees Alfredo alone and begs him to avoid a duel: pressed by Alfredo, she declares she loves the Baron. In a fury, Alfredo summons the guests to witness the repayment of his debts and flings his winnings in her face. The Baron Challenges him Germont enters in time to witness his son's outburst and reproaches him for it.

Act Three - Violetta's bedroom: a few months later
The doctor tells Annina that her mistress is dying. Violetta reads a letter from Germont telling her that Alfredo now knows of her sacrifice and is returning to ask her forgiveness. The lovers are reunited and Germont arrives to give his blessing; but it is too late and Violetta dies.

Reproduced by kind permission of English National Opera. These notes may not be reproduced without permission.


La Traviata The cultural context
The story of La Traviata is a romance and its subject is a woman's independence, her right to love and to live as a free agent. The opera comes from a society fascinated by the Status of women in which prostitution represents "an endstop to its image of the feminine''. La Traviata plays on contemporary fears and controversies: the dangers of the city and of disease, mysteries which were both exciting and threatening.

Verdi, who lived in Paris on and off for five years just before the composition of La Traviata, knew the values of the society in which it is set. He relished the anonymity of the city which allowed him to live with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi without apparent comment. But elsewhere he betrays another nightmare vision of the city, immortalised in Piave's words: 'This crowded desert they call Paris'. This was the urban desert where independent beings of either sex sought to survive in new, perhaps more liberal, perhaps more perverse relationships. He admires the courage and honesty of a woman who knows the world in which she has been brought up and acknowledges the impossibility of changing it.

Dumas favoured literature which was socially committed. In The Lady of the Camellias he adopts a high moral tone but his drama is played out to the rules of society. Verdi's opera not only incorporates the moral code of Dumas but his drama turns upon her suffering on the cross of pain and delight in the renunciation of love. Act Two offers the fallen woman the opportunity to sacrifice to the altar of the virgin Sister and not merely to die for love. Cleverly and inextricably implicit in the bargain is Giorgio Germont's view that Violetta should return to prostitution. Violetta obeys the father-figure for the sake of the pure daughter.

In The Lady of the Camellias, neither father nor son reach the deathbed of the heroine and the last lines are: 'Sleep in peace, much will be forgive you since you have loved so deeply'. Piave and Verdi heighten the religious aura still further: Violetta refers to her confession, she desires to go to church with Alfredo whose father comes in person to beg forgiveness.

The necrophiliac appeal of a man who falls in love with a woman doomed to die accorded with nineteenth-century taste. In this respect The Lady of the Camellias is not such a close relation of Manon Lescaut, her eighteenth century precedent whose author left many clues to the reader that she might live again. The purity and certainty of Violetta's death are set up in the Prelude just as the novel opens with chapters about her unhappy end. Verdi gives music of infinite appeal to her illness and her antagonists, as though to admit that her struggle is not only in vain but that we enjoy watching her fail. Her submission does not condone the values for which she dies but Verdi, Piave and Dumas make her die just the same so that she can be placed safely among the works of art in a respectable Second Empire salon.

La Traviata, June 1997, Nuffield Theatre

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