Go inside this production of La traviata with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
A party is in progress at the Paris home of the courtesan Violetta Valéry, who has just recovered from serious illness. Gastone de Letorières introduces her to Alfredo Germont, his friend from the country. Violetta’s current lover, Baron Douphol, is irritated with Alfredo because during Violetta’s recent illness, Alfredo came to her home each day to express his concern. Gastone encourages Alfredo to lead a drinking song. e guests move into the next room for dancing, but Violetta, feeling faint, stays behind. She is startled to see Alfredo and gently rebuffs him when he declares his love. Finally she gives him a flower, telling him to return when it has faded. Overjoyed – since this means he will see her the next day – he leaves, followed moments later by the other guests. Violetta wonders if Alfredo offers the true love she thought would never be hers. She laughs off the idea, declaring that she will live only for pleasure.
Scene 1. Five months later, Alfredo is blissfully happy living with Violetta in the country. When he learns from the maid, Annina, that Violetta has been selling her possessions to pay their expenses, Alfredo rushes off to Paris to raise the necessary funds. Violetta is perplexed by Alfredo’s sudden departure. She receives an invitation to a party to be given by her friend Flora Bervoix that evening in Paris and quickly dismisses it. Alfredo’s father arrives, outraged by his son’s liaison with Violetta. He insists that Violetta give up Alfredo for the sake of his family: the relationship would doom Alfredo’s sister’s chances for a prosperous marriage. Having assumed that Violetta was after his son’s money, Germont is surprised to see that she loves Alfredo unselfishly. Violetta is eventually convinced by Germont’s appeal and agrees to leave Alfredo, knowing that it will hasten her death. Germont urges her to live, attempting to console her with the thought that heaven will reward her sacrifice. After he departs, Violetta decides to attend Flora’s party and writes a farewell note to Alfredo. When he returns, she begs him simply to love her as much as she loves him and runs from the room. He confused Alfredo is surprised when a messenger delivers the farewell note. He reads only a few lines before despair overwhelms him, but his father appears and offers comfort. Noticing Flora’s invitation, Alfredo assumes that Violetta has returned to her old life – and to her old lover. He resolves to seek revenge. Scene 2. At Flora’s home, everyone enjoys some Spanish entertainment. Alfredo startles the guests by arriving without Violetta. She soon appears, escorted by Baron Douphol, who battles Alfredo at the gaming table. Alfredo wins every game and large sums of money. When supper is announced, all adjourn to the dining room, but Violetta soon reappears, having asked to see Alfredo privately. Fearing Douphol’s jealousy, she begs Alfredo to leave immediately. He refuses, finally drawing from her a false confession that she loves Douphol. Summoning the guests, Alfredo denounces Violetta and throws his winnings at her feet as payment for her services. She faints, causing all present to castigate Alfredo for his behavior. Germont, who has followed his son to the party, reproaches him for insulting a woman, even in anger. Now revived, Violetta laments that Alfredo will never understand the sacrifice she made for love.
One month later, Violetta lies dying in her Paris home. Dr. Grenvil encourages her, but admits to Annina that Violetta has only a few hours to live. Violetta asks Annina to distribute her remaining money to the poor. Left alone, she rereads a letter from Germont: Alfredo, having wounded the baron in a duel, is traveling abroad. Germont has written him of Violetta’s sacrifice, and Alfredo – accompanied by his father – will soon return to ask her forgiveness. Violetta knows that it is too late. Annina reappears, asking her mistress if she feels well enough to hear some unexpected, joyous news. Within seconds Violetta is in Alfredo’s arms. He convinces her that she will regain her health once they start life again, far from Paris. Violetta wishes to go to church to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. She attempts to dress, but her energy is gone. In anger and despair, she asks how God can let her die so young. When Germont arrives, he is horrified to see Violetta in such terrible condition. She gives Alfredo a miniature of herself in happier days, and asks that he give it to the woman he will one day marry. Violetta suddenly declares that she has found new strength, but then falls lifeless.
Romance is the epitome of opera. In the works opera fans love best, it’s the romantic element that stays with us the longest. We connect with an opera’s central couple, we suffer with them, we rejoice when things work out for them, but more often we cry when they don’t. Whatever the opera may be, we revel in the feelings it communicates onstage and instills in us, the audience.
In no opera is that more true than in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. The attraction of the courtesan Violetta Valéry to the impetuous young Alfredo Germont, previously illuminated in Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias, inspired Verdi to create what is by some distance the most romantic of his operas. At its heart is the beautiful, warmhearted, nobly self-sacrificing heroine, who reveals her soul in music of heartstopping beauty and sensitivity. Violetta’s solo scene in Act One, her two duets with Alfredo, her confrontation with his father – these all belong among the most indelible moments in Verdi.
The Lyric production, premiered during the 2013/14 season, was the first standard-repertoire work directed by Arin Arbus, who comes to opera from the world of the spoken theater. She’s a resident artist and former associate artistic director of one of New York’s most innovative companies, Theater for a New Audience, with a specialty in Shakespeare. The theatrical world she has created for this, the most immediately appealing and best-loved of all Verdi’s operas, is utterly compelling. Arin has memorably brought to life the central character of Violetta, the world that she seduces – and that seduces her – with such tragic consequences.
I am delighted to welcome back to Lyric the Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova. Audiences at Lyric have previously relished her portrayals of Verdi’s Gilda, Donizetti’s Lucia, and Bellini’s Elvira. Her glorious voice, immaculate technique, and affinity for Italian style make light of the most intimidating vocal challenges. Violetta gives her an ideal vehicle to reveal her prowess not just vocally but as an actress, playing a character that demands absolutely everything of its interpreter.
The role of Giorgio Germont brings the welcome return to our stage of Željko Lučič, the great Serbian baritone, previously Lyric’s Rigoletto and Nabucco and internationally acknowledged as one of the great Verdi interpreters of our day. Alongside Željko and Albina, making his Lyric debut as Alfredo, is a wonderful Italian tenor, Giorgio Berrugi. I know Lyric audiences will embrace his rich, ringing sound and his innate gift for Verdi phrasing.
It’s always exciting to introduce an exceptional young conductor to Lyric audiences. We have one in Michael Christie, who will bring wonderful conviction and authority to this glorious score. I know you’ll be intrigued, thrilled, and fi nally deeply touched by the exquisite romance of La traviata.
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Verdi’s opera La traviata helps us see ourselves. We all have something to strive for as we negotiate the social codes that we were born into. Some of us are able to live comfortably within the conventions of society and are grateful for what we have. While we hold charitable ideas towards others who are less fortunate, who we are comes down to our reputation; no one will argue against the honor in protecting our families. Yet some of us are born with fewer opportunities and work hard with the limited resources we have. We make the best choices we can, even when they are not ideal. Here, when we have a chance at happiness, and it fits within society’s mores, we believe that we have found success. This is the world of La traviata.
The opera’s heroine, Violetta Valéry, has risen to prominent society through her ability to fit within the patriarchal codes of the time (both of Verdi’s time and the original setting of the opera, Paris in 1700s) by charming and delighting men. Giorgio Germont is not adverse to socializing with Violetta; they attend the same parties and frequently enjoy the same lifestyle. When his son Alfredo falls in love with Violetta (and she returns that love), desire, respectability, and reputation clash together. Violetta invests her hard-earned life’s savings into a new beginning with Alfredo, hoping for a few months of happiness before her sickness overtakes her. Giorgio Germont sees a young, beautiful courtesan sullying the standing of his family; he follows his instincts to put his family’s reputation first and uphold the code that prevents incongruous social pairings, despite his son’s feelings and Violetta’s reality.
Within Verdi’s lifetime, we see that the model of 19th-century womanhood presents unfair stakes for Violetta; it isn’t an even-handed game for her, as she lives outside of having access to social respectability. An unusual element for this Verdi opera is that all the women we meet in La traviata are outside of royal, aristocratic, and reputable bourgeois society. Violetta associates with the upper classes through the exchange of money and protection for her services. There’s nothing to indicate that her friend Flora Bervoix occupies a different social position. Annina is Violetta’s faithful servant, and the other women in the opera are either the guests of the parties that Violetta and Flora host for upper-class gentlemen (hardly a place their wives would appear), or the exotic fortunetellers in the chorus who entertain at Flora’s party.
The ideal model of womanhood for La traviata exists only in an ethereal sense: through Alfredo’s nameless sister, who presents the flawless foil to Violetta, the fallen woman. We first hear of this sister strategically in Act Two, when Giorgio Germont accuses Violetta of bewitching his son and demands that she leave him immediately. Violetta’s response is poised and spot-on; she lets him know that she’s a dignified woman in her own house. She quickly reveals that she’s been supporting them on her money, and that she loves Alfredo in a sincere way that she believes makes up for her past. Germont realizes that Violetta has a noble self-possession, and he searches for another argument to persuade Violetta to leave. Up to this moment, Germont and Violetta have been singing in a free-style type of verse with very sparse orchestral accompaniment; at this point the usual operatic conventions (la solita forma) for the formal tempo and verse forms of duets haven’t yet taken hold.
However, when Germont sings of his daughter – “pure as an angel” – who isn’t able to marry (due to her brother’s liaison with Violetta), the rules of la solita forma set in. Verdi scripts Germont’s patriarchal stance in a way that ensnares Violetta formally in the music and thrusts the two characters into the standard duet convention. Musically, Verdi had allowed Violetta to stand up to Germont in a way that was outside of traditional duets – to speak her mind in a way not bound by predictable versification and rhyme schemes. But as Germont gets his way, the conventions set in. Nonetheless, Violetta doesn’t give up easily, fighting back with her refusal to sing Germont’s melodies or follow his lead, as she attempts to negotiate to leave Alfredo for only a short time, until his sister marries. She tells him that leaving Alfredo will destroy both of them, but Germont thinks she’s being overly dramatic and insists that she leave Alfredo permanently, while trying to reassure her that she’ll meet someone else one day. Yet by this time, the crux of Germont’s argument – that Violetta is not “pure as an angel” – has sunken into her psyche. She no longer feels worthy or deserving of happiness with Alfredo, especially at the expense of his virtuous sister. As the duet progresses within the familiar conventions, Germont offers Violetta a proposition she accepts – to “be the consoling angel of my family.”
That duet is the opera’s backbone, as it reveals a fundamental tension within the patriarchal codes of behavior. When Violetta wants to settle down and devote herself to Alfredo, she is not allowed to do so. The opera sits squarely in the era of the Victorian ethic, with women’s respectability centered primarily in the domestic sphere. ough Italy can’t uncritically be conflated with cultural and political movements in the rest of Europe and the United States, it seems fitting that Coventry Patmore’s wildly successful narrative poem, “The Angel in the House” – about a feminine ideal for women as wife and mother safely ensconced within domesticity – appeared in 1854, the year after La traviata premiered. Violetta achieves neither of these identities and her interaction with Germont illuminates the potency of this model from Alfredo’s pure angelic sister to Violetta’s own acceptance of her invisible role as the banished consoling angel to the Germont family.
Verdi gives keen attention to form and characterization in La traviata. The title takes the past participle of the Italian verb traviare (to lead astray), and turns it into a noun frequently translated as “The Fallen son has been led astray". However, in the opera’s second half, we see a different side of the story, as Violetta herself seems more the victim of having been betrayed as she suffers and slowly expires, nearly alone and feeling abandoned in Paris.
Verdi wrote La traviata for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, a critical place for developing his operatic style; it was the house during the 1840s-1850s for which he wrote most frequently. La traviata was one of five operas he created for La Fenice (the others were Ernani, 1844; Attila, 1846; Rigoletto, 1851; and Simon Boccanegra, 1857). Named for the mythological Phoenix who rose out of the ashes, the house has been destroyed by fire three times (in 1792, 1836, and 1996) only to be rebuilt and remain a leading international performing venue up through today. The libretto for La Traviata, written by Francesco Maria Piave (Verdi’s most frequent librettist), was based on La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi – his life partner who later became his wife – both read the novel (1848) and saw the play (1852) together in Paris. Strepponi, previously his leading soprano at the triumphant premiere of his first hit, Nabucco (1841), became his trusted advisor from her extensive experience in the opera industry. Though it pushed society’s norms for them to live together unmarried (they didn’t officially become husband and wife until 1859), they remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. Their life together provides one of the background contexts for Verdi as he was writing La traviata. Although one of Verdi’s most beloved and often-performed operas, La traviata had a much bumpier beginning than one might anticipate. The word “fiasco” came up several times in Verdi’s own words about the work, and the initial reception was generally cool. After only nine performances, the opera was withdrawn. Once Verdi had revised it, the new version premiered a year later at the smaller Teatro San Benedetto, also in Venice. From the singers cast in the two productions and specific elements in the music (though Verdi downplayed the revisions, scholars suggest that some were quite substantial), in 1854 the opera fulfilled the potential Verdi always believed it had. This time, the reception was much stronger and Verdi now referred to it as a “furore” and an unmitigated success.
The topic of women’s positions in society that weren’t rooted in the domestic sphere was bold in the 1850s and remains relevant today. We live in an era where gender dynamics are even more complicated; the growing identities around trans people and the #MeToo movement have uncovered much inequity between the ways all kinds of women are treated in a social system architecturally designed by and for men. Yet in this biased atmosphere of La traviata, the audience also witnesses how Giorgio Germont is affected by Violetta. He sees and acknowledges her dignity. While ultimately he still holds the upper hand regarding societal power in their duet, Violetta emerges as the more sympathetic, human, and fully developed character.
Many recent interpretatios have focused on Violetta as a surrogate for Giuseppina Strepponi living with Verdi as an unmarried woman, a victim for pity and shame. A different emphasis reveals how much independence and self-assurance Violetta asserts as she stands up to the elder Germont in Act Two, only to be maligned and not taken seriously. She emerges as the truly decent and upright character as she forgives both father and son at the end. In the audience, we understand that onstage this opera’s heroine can’t get what she deserves at the end – fair treatment and a sanguine, respectable life with Alfredo. Yet the larger picture, offstage with the complementing story of Verdi in real life choosing to be with Strepponi, a strong, honorable woman, feels especially powerful today as it approaches more equitable goals within a long-term committed relationship.
Associate Professor in Women’s Studies, the Department of Afro-American and African Studies, and the Associate Director for Faculty at the Residential College at the University of Michigan The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Prior to the premiere of Arin Arbus’s production of La traviata in 2013, she spoke with Lyric’s director of media relations, Magda Krance. (Edited by Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines.)
How have you immersed yourself in the story, the music, and the backstory of La traviata?
I read the Dumas fils novel and play to understand the source material. I also read about Marie Duplessis, the courtesan Dumas fils fell in love with, who was the inspiration for his novel. Because the opera rests so deeply upon 19th-century bourgeois concepts of morality, it’s important to gain an understanding of the values of the world that Verdi is depicting, as well as the life and trade of a Parisian courtesan of the period. There really isn’t an equivalent in our time – certainly it’s very different from our contemporary understanding of prostitution.
What draws you to this opera?
I’m drawn to the incredible music. I love Violetta’s fierce thirst for life in the face of death, her self-loathing, her loneliness, the wild parties. I’m also interested in the politics the opera contains. One must remember La traviata scandalized the censors when it was written. Verdi wrote about the hypocrisies of the society in which he was living. As much as the opera is a deeply drawn psychological portrait of a woman struggling to love and survive, it’s a social critique. The story depicts a woman destroyed by a brutal and petty world. The love which Violetta and Alfredo create together is a kind of rebellion against that world.
How do you keep the opera’s timeliness/ timelessness without transposing it into a current setting?
For me, it’s not the setting that makes something relevant. I’ve seen many plays, operas, films set in our contemporary world that have little relevance or power, just as I have seen many period pieces that speak to me directly and feel of the moment. The period is just the surface. In this case, the immediacy of the music, the characters, their situations and the passion expressed within the opera remain vital and relevant. The opera exists in its own time, but speaks to us of now.
We have set this production in the 19th-century because the dramaturgy rests so deeply upon 19th-century bourgeois concepts of morality. And because the life and trade of a Parisian courtesan were so specific. Violetta’s shame and her precarious financial situation are rooted in the values of her time and sit at the crux of the tragedy.
How do you envision the chorus’s role?
In a certain sense La traviata is a story about profane love. Germont reveals the values of the world Alfredo rebels against, while the chorus represents the society from which Violetta attempts to escape.
Germont has conventional, rigid ideas about right and wrong. He values appearances and reputation more than love or happiness. This is a world which Verdi knew well.
Years after his wife and children had died, Verdi endured admonishments for living outside of marriage with the renown soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. In an extraordinary letter to his former father-in-law, Verdi wrote what Violetta does not say to Germont: “I am not accustomed to interfere in other people’s business, because I demand that no one interfere in mine.... In my house there lives a free, independent lady who loves seclusion as I do.... Neither she nor I owe any account of our action to anyone. Who knows whether she is my wife or not? And who knows in this special case what our thoughts and reasons are for not making it public? Who knows whether this is good or bad? Why might it not be a good thing? And even if it were bad, who has the right to hurl the ban against us?"
The chorus embodies the “teeming desert of Paris.” It’s a stratified and monied sphere, filled with courtesans who are briefly kept by upper class and aristocratic patrons until they are discarded, often to destitution.
In The Lady of the Camellias, upon which the opera is based, Dumas fils writes: “[Courtesans of Paris] are suns which set as they rose, unobserved. Their death, when they die young, is heard of by all their lovers at the same moment, for in Paris almost all the lovers of a well-known woman are friends. A few recollections are exchanged, and everybody's life goes on as if the incident had never occurred, without so much as a tear.... one has friends only when one is perfectly well.”
What are the inspirations for the visual world you’re creating with your collaborators?
Here are some images that come to mind: a frail girl putting on a big dress, damask wallpaper, a man in a woman’s wig, bulls, skeletons, Spanish lace, iridescent bird wings, matadors, colored paper lanterns, dancing shadows, Ingmar Bergman’s figures on the horizon from e Seventh Seal, pastel colored cakes, carnival parades, 19th-century Parisian interiors, daguerreotypes, white plaster walls, confetti....