Opera has always presented a more overt demand for suspension of disbelief than most other dramatic forms, and never more so than with its ongoing fascination with plots based on hanahaki disease. The middle of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of this tidy, sentimental metaphor for tuberculosis – a gory, unpleasant and all too real ailment – and it has lingered ever since. Blood was replaced with roses, hacking coughs with immaculate arias, lingering deaths with graceful swoons. Even Giuseppe Verdi was not immune to the craze. Violetta, o, la traviata, is something of a departure from his usual preoccupation with politics and the grand sweep of history. It is also one of his most popular operas.
Violetta, o, la traviata
Violetta Valery (soprano)
Flora Bervoix, her friend (mezzo-soprano)
Alfredo Germont (tenor)
Annina, Violetta's maid (soprano)
Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father (baritone)
a doctor (bass)
Verdi seems to have moved some distance away from the conventional overture by this mid-point in his oeuvre. Instead, we get a prelude, with the wistful flower theme played on the violins.
The mood changes abruptly to jaunty woodwinds as the action opens at a party at Violetta's house. We discover her making small talk with some guests, who include a Marquis, a Baron – and Flora de Bervoix.
Alfredo enters, and Flora introduces him to Violetta as the man who came every day for news when she was sick. The Baron and the Marquis are not impressed, and Flora smooths things over by asking the newcomer to sing.
brindisi Alfredo obliges with a song about wine and youth. 'Libiamo ne' lieti calici che la belleza infiora.' (Let's drink from the cup in which beauty flowers!) Violetta answers him with the second verse. 'Godiam, fugace e rapido e il gaudio dell'amore e un fior che nasce e muore.' (Let's enjoy life, for the pleasures of love are fleeting, like a flower that lives and dies.) The mood is very self-consciously ebullient. One might almost say 'frenetic'.
The guests go off to supper. Violetta lingers behind and Alfredo waits for her.
aria Alfredo claims that he has loved Violetta for a year and more (Ah, si, da un anno.).
duet Violetta tells him that she appreciates the compliment, but warns him. He can't afford to fall in love with her, and she can't afford to fall in love at all. He will find it easy to forget her.
She gives him a flower and sends him packing. The other guests file out, somewhat boisterously, and Violetta is left alone.
aria This is Violetta's great set piece. It covers many thoughts and emotions. She can't believe that he loves her. She isn't entirely sure what love is. Is this it, this fluttering feeling in her heart? She sings of Lui, che modesto e vigile all'egre soglie acese, e nuova febbre accese destandomi all'amor! (this man who waited at my sickbed and turned my illness into the burning fever of love). But it doesn't matter. Love can't be part of her life. 'Sempre libera', she sings. She will always be free.
Then we hear Alfredo singing under the balcony. No, Violetta repeats, this is madness (follie). She will remain free.
A house outside Paris, where Violetta and Alfredo have been living for the last three months.
aria Alfredo enters and sings of his happiness. Violetta has abandoned her whole life in Paris to be with him. He needs no further proof of her love for him.
Annina, the maid, comes in. She has been in Paris, selling Violetta's horses and carriages on her instructions. (Per alienar cavalli; cocchi e quanto ancor possiede.) Alfredo demands to know why. To cover their debts, Annina says.
aria 'O mio rimorso... O mio rossor! O infamia!' Alfredo expresses his feelings about this state of affairs (Remorse! Shame! Disgrace!) and rushes off to Paris himself.
Violetta comes in and is surprised to learn that Alfredo has gone to Paris. Annina gives her a letter from Flora.
Violetta reads it. Dove sei? (Where are you?) Flora has written, presumably, since the letter has reached its destination, meaning it metaphorically rather than literally. Parigi è morto senza te. (Paris is dead without you.) She is inviting Violetta to a party. 'Carissima Flora!' Violetta sings, but dismisses it with a laugh.
The butler announces a visitor: it is Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father.
Germont explains that his daughter's fiancée threatens to break off the engagement if Alfredo continues the liaison. They are, he says, Pure siccome due angeli (as pure as two angels). He can neither expect his future daughter-in-law to associate herself with the scandal that Alfredo has brought upon the family, nor bear to see his daughter's heart broken.
'E il core del tuo figlio?' she asks. What of your son's heart? Germont replies that he has no fears for Alfredo's health.
aria Violetta is in love for the first time in her life, and now she is being asked to give this up. 'Giammai!' she exclaims. (Never!)
duet Germont continues to press her. His daughter is being offered lasting happiness. Violetta's happiness cannot last, he tells her. At last, weeping, she gives in. She urges him to remain in the garden to comfort his son when he learns what has happened.
Germont agrees and leaves the room. Violetta writes two notes, one to Alfredo and one to Flora. Alfredo arrives before she can finish. She refuses to show him either note, but begs him to tell her he loves her. 'Dimmi... è vero, tu m'ami?' Then she bids him farewell.
He asks why she is leaving so suddenly; she tells him that he will understand very soon, and rushes away.
aria Alfredo reads Violetta's note. In it, she tells him that they are parted forever. 'Lasciami morir,' let me die, he sings despairingly.
His father attempts to comfort him, but Alfredo will have none of it. He snatches up the other letter – Flora's invitation to the party – reads it, and immediately dashes off to Paris in pursuit.
Flora's party. She is talking with the Marquis and – in an ominous bit of foreshadowing – the doctor. They discuss whether Violetta and Alfredo will come to the party. The Marquis reports that they have broken their relationship and assumes that she will come with the Baron. Flora remarks that Violetta is welcome to bring the one, or the other, or nobody.
Much has been written about Verdi's mezzo-sopranos and contraltos (see, for example, Finding a Voice for the Countess of Aremberg: the confidante in Verdi's operas, Gatling and Kerber, 1988) and their relationships with the soprano characters. Were they not too varied for such a term to be meaningless, one might call Flora de Bervoix 'typical'. Her quiet loyalty to Violetta – one that can easily be read as romantic – shames the inconstancy of the men. She has no solo arias, no flashy ornaments. And yet we are always aware of her presence. In the first and last acts she is off stage only during the big romantic scenes between Violetta and Alfredo; in the second, the moment where Violetta reads her letter can be one of the most touching of the whole opera.
Did Verdi and Piave intend Flora, like Violetta, to be shown succumbing to the disease? Her name suggests it, as do her mysterious final lines in this act ('I fiori sono morti, e la festa è finita... per me, non è mai iniziata.' - 'The flowers are dead, and the party is over... for me, it never began.'). Directors who choose this interpretation often give her daisies to cough up, in a self-conscious nod to Marguerite, the Violetta analogue in Dumas' original La Dame aux Camélias.
chorus But for the moment, at least, the mood is light-hearted. Some of Flora's guests, disguised as gypsies and matadors, entertain the rest of the party with a programme of fortune telling, dancing, and a performance on their tambourines.
Alfredo appears – alone. Flora installs him at a card table. Violetta then arrives with the Baron.
The Baron and Alfredo irritate each other to the point where Violetta implores heaven to help her. Heaven is not forthcoming. Instead, Alfredo demands that she leave with him. She tells him that she can't; she's made a promise. This much is, of course, true. However, since she can't tell to whom she's made that promise, it doesn't help much, and he assumes she means the Baron.
finale Alfredo calls everybody into the room and denounces Violetta with an excruciatingly detailed account of their liaison. He throws his gambling winnings at her feet.
It is at this moment that Violetta's disease first appears in its physical manifestation. It poses some challenges for the party in charge of special effects, who must ensure a convincing spectacle without impairing the singer's respiratory system. The flowers are described variously as 'rossi e bianchi' (red and white), as in Dumas' original camellias, and as 'viole' (purple), as befitting Violetta. Directors have chosen props according to their whim.
But she manages to hide this from Alfredo and all the guests. Only Flora notices. The act comes to a close with the rest of the company talking variously of Alfredo's terrible behaviour, honour and duels, and sacrifice.
Two months later. Violetta's bedroom; she is in bed. The disease has reached its final stages.
A regrettable myth has grown up around the première. It is true that Verdi called it a 'fiasco'; and recent writers have blamed this on the first Violetta, Fanny Salvini Donatelli, whom they have deemed too plump to play this victim of a wasting disease convincingly. In actual fact, a cursory study of contemporary accounts will show that the première was not the disaster it's painted these days, and that Salvini Donatelli was the most consistently applauded of the three principals.
The prelude to this final act harks back to the first one. It is usually played with the curtain up. A recent production had a gauze down and a time-lapse film of a growing violet. Critical opinion was divided as to whether this was understated and effective, or tacky as hell.
The doctor tells Violetta that she is improving, but admits to Flora that he's lying. Violetta has perhaps a few hours left to live.
Violetta rereads a letter from Germont. He writes that Alfredo has wounded the Baron in a duel and therefore forced to leave the country. Germont has explained Violetta's sacrifice to him (though not to the sister or her fiancée) and Alfredo will return to implore her pardon.
'And yet,' Violetta observes drily, 'I'm still dying.' Remorse isn't the same thing as love, and it can't save her.
aria Violetta laments the cruel irony of her fate (O destino crudel!) She does not care for love – in her profession, it was an inconvenience at best, and now it's killing her – but she wants to live. In rather gruesome detail she imagines the plants twining around her heart and lungs, and describes how she would extract the unwelcome growth if only it were possible. But there's no help for it. Her destiny is to love and die. 'Tutto fini.' (Everything is over.)
Alfredo arrives, accompanied by his father.
duet Alfredo suggests that he and Violetta leave Paris ('Parigi, o cara...'). Hope returns: perhaps he really does love her; perhaps she will recover. She suggests that they go to church to give thanks for his safe return, but she hasn't the strength to put on her coat.
Flora runs to get the doctor.
trio Violetta says that she is going to die and gives Alfredo a portrait of herself. He and his father express remorse and despair. 'No,' Alfredo exclaims, 'non morrai!' (Don't die!)
There is a discreet pause while Violetta coughs up another flower. 'See,' she says, 'how beautiful it is, how perfect every petal, and yet it's killing me.'
quintet Returning to the portrait, Violetta begs Alfredo to give it to the person he will eventually marry. The others quietly express their grief.
Suddenly, Violetta exclaims, 'È strano... in me rinasce m'agita insolito vigor! Ah! ma io ritorno a viver!' (It's strange... my old strength is reborn in me! Life is returning to me!) But it's only another flower. She dies.