From "La dame aux camélias" to "La Taviata" - the risky undertaking of Giuseppe Verdi
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.