Violetta Valéry—her name is elegance itself. We can see her at the start of La Traviata, in a ball gown with a gardenia in her hair, bursting with feverish energy in greeting her party guests. And we can see her, too, in the opera’s final act, fragile and devastated, clinging to love, tragically failing in her attempt to will herself to live.
A memorable Traviata hinges on the portrayal of Violetta. The soprano is compelled to dig into herself to find the purest, most unfettered emotion. To sing the music demands every ounce of technique and expressiveness, not only to shape Verdi’s phrases, but also to color Francesco Maria Piave’s eloquent text. Onstage, any Violetta must be a true colleague, responding to her tenor and baritone with exceptional sensitivity.
This character wasn’t Verdi and Piave’s creation. As Marguerite Gautier, she graced the novel and play by Alexandre Dumas fils, La Dame aux Camélias. He modeled her on his former lover, Marie Duplessis, a girl of humble beginnings who reinvented herself as a courtesan, beguiling Parisian men with her incomparable charm before dying pitifully early, at the age of 23.
The Verdi/Piave heroine showed opera audiences exactly what a courtesan’s life was like. Here was a woman who required all the confidence she possessed to make her way in the world. When we first see her, she’s relying on the largesse of a wealthy man, who presumably expects her favors in return. When she meets Alfredo she can, for the very first time, finally be loved simply for herself. The opera’s tragedy is set in motion first by Violetta’s selling her possessions to pay for their life in the country, and then by her lover’s father, who insists that she give up the liaison for the sake of his family’s reputation.
Unlike Puccini, Verdi didn’t invariably fall in love with his heroines, but he adored Violetta. He was attracted to the reality of her story being truly contemporary—a rarity in opera at the time—although that very quality scared theaters (at Traviata’s 1853 Venice premiere and for some time thereafter in Italy, audiences saw Traviata in costumes recalling the era of Louix XIV). The opera failed initially, but Verdi knew he’d produced a masterpiece. After the fiasco of that first performance, featuring a vocally overparted and excessively plump soprano as the consumptive courtesan, he wrote to a conductor friend, “I myself believe that the last word on La Traviata was not heard last night. They will hear it again—and we shall see!”
Those words were prophetic, for La Traviata quickly became, and will surely always be, one of the world’s best-loved operas. Verdi’s music ennobles the “fallen woman” of the title, carrying her on an emotional journey from a party girl’s hard-edged gaiety to a lover’s ecstasy and wrenching self-sacrifice. From the magical moment when she first sees her Alfredo, Violetta will grab your heart and not for one second will she let it go.
- Roger Pines
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, writes regularly for opera-related publications internationally. He has appeared annually as a panelist on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts’ Opera Quiz since 2006.