Thursday, January 26, 2012

La traviata

In April of 1852, while still in the midst of writing Il trovatore, Giuseppe Verdi agreed to write a new opera to be premiered in March of 1853 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. With his librettist Francesco Maria Piave in tow, Verdi decided to base this new opera, which would eventually be titled La traviata (meaning literally “the fallen woman” in Italian), on the spectacularly successful novel-cum-play, La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas fils. M. Dumas’s story was autobiographical: at the tender age of 20, he fell in love with Marie Duplessis, the basis of La traviata’s Violetta, an upper class prostitute and the toast of Paris known for her wildly extravagant parties. However, poor Violetta, was doomed to a tragic tubercular ending – like many 19th century opera heroines.

Gran Teatro La Fenice
Marie Duplessis
Alexandre Dumas fils
La traviata was a cutting edge and risqué story, one centering on the themes of taboo love, heartbreak, and tragedy; directly confronting prostitution in mid-19th century Paris. Verdi was writing this opera at a heady time: Italy and Germany were struggling through a bloody national unification process; civil unrest and revolution touched nearly every major European city in 1848. Verdi was living through social and intellectual transformations that had major repercussions on his own vision of his art. By the mid-19th century, artists no longer aimed to simply please or emotionally move. As the Verdi scholar Gilles de Van writes, “The artist became an intellectual, art a way of understanding; art could now both represent reality and comment on it.”

With this in mind, Verdi’s La traviata is an utterly modern work of art: Verdi and Maria Piave sought to reflect contemporary society and comment on it. As an opera commissioned in 1852 and premiered in 1853, one feels Verdi coming into his own, tackling a bold and contemporary subject, that of Violetta, a courtesan and the heroine of La traviata, a character who, much like Verdi, had to serve the pleasures of the mid-19th century public.

Mena Mark Hanna
Houston Grand Opera 

Giuseppe Verdi
Franceso Maria Piave

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