A courtesan, friend of Barone Douphol
Traviata, Parisienne prima donna representative of the "mal du siècle"
After the successful debut of Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi began to work on two new operas: Il Trovatore for the Teatro Apollo in Rome and another opera for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The composition of the second opera is more tormented. The reason being that Verdi couldn't choose a subject. The inspiration came at the first performance in Paris of the theatrical piece La dame aux camélias from Dumas Fils' book, written in 1848, strongly autobiographical and with a highly scandalistic subject matter. Giuseppe Verdi entrusted the drafting of the libretto to Francesco Maria Piave who in just five days wrote the script for Traviata, reproducing substantially the dramatic scheme of the story and dividing the opera into three acts compared to five in the original story.
The idea of putting music to a drama which was very much discussed at that time is, to say the least, an audacious undertaking and shows the great courage of Giuseppe Verdi: the main character of the story, Margherite Gautier did, in fact, really exist. Verdi's opera loyally follows Dumas's text and above all the spirit of the drama of the French writer, but the names of the characters are changed for reasons of discretion.
The Venetian censors, who were particularly tolerant when it came to this composer changed the title proposed by Verdi from Amore e morte to Traviata and moved the event to the XVIII century, to try and cancel the effect which was too realistic fed by the roughness of the subject. In fact, some of the spectators belonging to the high society might have been able to recognize themselves in the characters in the fictitious scene. However, apart from the overall provocative effect, all the audience had to do was to admire a normal melodramatic cliché.
For the first time Verdi uses a narrative technique which is unusual in a melodrama from that époque, applied however only to the music and without the help of the words. In modern terms we could call it a flashback. The listener is led by the hand in this voyage going back in time, through the Parisian parties, in a euphoric, light-hearted situation which contrasts with the image of Violetta who lies sick on her bed. The theme about consumption, the fashionable, romantic illness which troubles Violetta, was the inspiration for Verdi's best musical pieces.
After the initial difficulties, the opera was finally staged at the Teatro La Fenice on March 6th, 1853. Unfortunately it's first staging was unsuccessful: the singers were physically unsuited to the parts and as well as that some of them did not apply themselves very well. The following year Verdi changed the score, even if it was only slightly, to make it more suited to the new singers and on May 6th, 1854 the opera was performed at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice and finally received the success it deserved.
Setting: Paris and the surrounding area, circa 1850
Violetta Valéry, the beautiful friend of Baron Duphol, is entertaining guests at her house. The charming and attractive lady, who frequents the Parisian circles, attempts, in vain, to conceal the pain she is suffering due to her delicate health, by immersing herself in pure enjoyment. In fact, after a short period of time she is forced to interrupt her dance with Alfredo Germont, her secret admirer whom she has just met, due to an acute coughing fit. Her guest is deeply moved by her suffering and on an impulse declares his feelings for her. Violetta gives him a present of a Camelia, promising to see him again when the flower has withered. The party ends; as soon as she is alone, the woman feels for the first time an intense feeling and ardently desires to meet with the young Alfredo.
A country villa outside Paris
The two lovers have established themselves in a little country villa outside Paris, happy and without a care. Violetta, in fact, doesn't accept the party invitation which her friend Flora Bervoix has sent her. Alfredo discovers from Violetta's maid that Violetta has sold some of her jewels to pay their expenses. He goes to Paris to obtain some money to repay the sacrifices his loved one has made from them. Meanwhile, while Alfredo is absent, his father Giorgio Germont arrives unexpectedly and pleads with Violetta to break off her sinful affair with his son, for it is a dishonour for the family and is ruining Alfredo's financial situation. Violetta, however, shows him proof that it is she, in fact, who has financed everything he sees around him.
The delicate Violetta is torn between the harsh words of her loved one's father and her love for Alfredo. She defends her feelings but Germont reveals that the relationship is, in fact, impeding his daughter's marriage. On hearing this Violetta resigns herself to the sacrifice. When Alfredo returns he meets Violetta who is just leaving the cottage, but he thinks she is just going on a brief errand. He learns the truth when he receives her goodbye note and is grief stricken. Subsequently, he is embittered, however, when he comes across the invitation to Flora Bervoix's party. He runs off in search of a way to gain revenge.
Paris. Flora Bervoix's party
Distressed but reconciled to the fact that she must keep an unbridgeable distance from her recent experience with love, Violetta returns to frequenting the glamorous Parisian society. She arrives at Flora's party alongside Baron Duphol. Alfredo has already arrived at the party and when he sees the baron, he challenges him to a game of cards. The latter loses a small fortune to Alfredo and Violetta is fearful of the consequences. She pleads with Alfredo to leave the party, but when he replies that he is only prepared to leave in her company, the young woman is forced to lie. She reveals that she has promised the baron that she will not see Alfredo any more and this information causes pure anger to arise in the young man. In front of all present, he throws the money he has just won in the card game with contempt at Violetta's feet, intending in this way to pay back the expenses she has incurred. Alfredo's father is witness to the shameful gesture and reproaches his son for it, without having the courage, however, to reveal the truth to him.
Paris. The bedroom of the dying Violetta
The sorrowful scene is due to the precarious health of Violetta, who is, at this stage, confined to her bed without hope. A letter from Alfredo's father comforts her marginally, because he informs her of having disclosed the secret to his son and announces that Alfredo will soon be arriving to implore forgiveness. Violetta waits anxiously for the moment where she can embrace her loved one and hopes for a future full of happiness with him. But the encounter transforms into a bitter-sweet moment: Violetta has only the strength to give him a present of a locket, and to whisper that from heaven she will pray for him. She then exhales her final breath.