La Traviata

A wealthy businessman falls for a “working girl” with a big heart and offers her a better life. But class differences may keep them apart. Sound familiar? That’s the plot of Pretty Woman. But long before, it was the plot of Verdi’s La traviata.

Synopsis

Death isn’t always unwelcome. An on-stage or on-screen death can be wonderfully cathartic. Without the death scene, Romeo and Juliet would be just another romance. But to make death heart-wrenching, there must first be great love – like that of Edward (Richard Gere) and Vivian (Julia Roberts) in Pretty Woman, which is a retelling of Verdi’s La traviata – but with a Hollywood happy ending tacked on. (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! stuck closer to the source material.) The plot is familiar: Aristocrat falls for a “working girl” with a heart of gold and offers her a better life. An outside force tries to keep them apart due to their class differences. (In Pretty Woman, it’s Jason Alexander’s character. In La Traviata, the suitor’s father plays the heavy.) In Hollywood, love would save the day. But opera isn’t Hollywood, and the heroine of La traviata is gravely ill. When the tragic, tear-jerking end arrives, it’s glorious.

An opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. The story takes place in Paris in the fall of 1850.

ACT I

In the world of Paris’ rich and powerful in the mid-19th century, social conventions bound everyone to a lifestyle that, on the surface, was proper. But beneath the surface existed another world – a half world, or demi-monde, as the French say – where the nobility could enjoy every excess their wealth offered, including the company of courtesans.

These women were not prostitutes; they were kept women who were expected to entertain for their patron, go to the theater and opera with him and perform other services within the boundaries of the conventions of the demi-monde. Enter our heroine, Violetta Valery, a beautiful, engaging courtesan, who’s holding a dinner party for her patron and lover, the Baron Duphol.

Violetta’s friend Gaston introduces her to Alfredo Germont. He explains that Alfredo came every day during her recent illness to inquire about her health. No one realizes Violetta has tuberculosis.

In the famous Brindisi, or drinking song, Alfredo sings a toast to love, to which Violetta replies. As guests go off to dance, Violetta collapses in a fit of coughing. Quickly recovering, she tells them to proceed to the ballroom, but Alfredo lingers and declares his love for her.

She laughs at his ardor, but is touched by his sincerity. She dismisses him, but says he may return when the camellia she’s given him has faded. The guests leave, and she remains alone to consider Alfredo’s overture. Violetta realizes the social conventions that bind her life make true love impossible, and she resolves to continue her life of wealth and leisure in the thrilling aria, Sempre Libera (Always Free).

ACT II

Alfredo has won Violetta’s love. For several months, they have been living happily together in Violetta’s country house.

Violetta’s maid, Annina, tells Alfredo reluctantly that Violetta has been selling off her property to pay for the life she’s now leading. Realizing she has been paying his expenses, Alfredo leaves for Paris immediately to stop this. In his absence, Violetta gets a visit from Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont.

He’s a well-to-do businessman who believes the courtesan is ruining his son’s reputation. And, he tells her their illicit love affair is the reason he can’t marry off his daughter.

At first, Violetta assumes Germont wants her to leave Alfredo until a wedding can take place. But that alone won’t satisfy the old man. He reminds her that her past will always haunt them, and that true love can never be hers. In despair, Violetta tells him Alfredo is all she lives for, and such a sacrifice would kill her.

In the months she’s been in the country with Alfredo, her health has improved substantially and she believes she has escaped her past – and her illness. Giorgio cruelly tells her that her beauty will fade eventually and that Alfredo, like all men, will grow tired of her. Succumbing to his cruelty, Violetta agrees to Germont’s demands, asking only to be embraced as a daughter and to allow her to break the news to Alfredo.

Having won, Germont leaves Violetta to decide how to break it off with Alfredo. She writes him a letter and plans to leave before he returns. Just then, Alfredo surprises her. She says she’s leaving for a short while but vows to return. Then, turning to leave, she frantically confesses her love.

Alfredo reads the letter and is crushed. His father reappears to offer consolation and to ask him to come home to his family. Angrily rejecting this suggestion, Alfredo notices an invitation for that evening from Flora, one of Violetta’s friends, and he concludes this is where he will find her.

Scene Two. A magnificent party, with gambling, dancing, entertainment and gypsy fortune-tellers, is underway. Violetta has returned to her former lover, Baron Duphol, and arrives with him. Alfredo enters, to the surprise of everyone. He gambles with the Baron and wins a substantial amount.

Violetta begs Alfredo to leave, but he forces her to explain her behavior. In desperation, and to protect Alfredo’s father, she says she no longer loves him. At this, Alfredo calls the guests to witness that he pays his debts in full and throws his winnings at Violetta. Flora’s guests are outraged at his cruel behavior, and the Baron challenges Alfredo to a duel.

ACT III

It’s winter, and the scene is Violetta’s bedroom. Her health has declined. The Baron has left her. And her money is almost gone. She tells Annina to give half of what little remains to the poor.

She has gotten a letter from Alfredo’s father explaining that the Baron was wounded in his duel with Alfredo, and that Alfredo has left Paris. He tells her his son now knows the truth of her sacrifice and that they will both soon return to ask her forgiveness. Too late, she cries, and in a magnificent aria, she realizes her life will soon be over.

Alfredo arrives and for a moment, he convinces her she will recover and again be happy. She gives Alfredo a locket and asks that he give it to the woman he will one day meet and marry. She asks him to be happy, and remember her. Reconciled to both father and son, and no longer bound by social convention, Violetta’s sacrifice is complete as the curtain falls.

POPera Facts

Did you cry in Pretty Woman when Vivian (Julia Roberts) wept during her first opera? She was watching Verdi’s La traviata in Edward’s (Richard Gere) luxury box.

Pretty Woman is based on that tragic romance. (So is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! But it stuck closer to the source material.) In the movie, Vivian is watching an opera that the movie she’s in was based on. How meta is that?

In the movie and the opera, an aristocrat falls for a “working girl” with a heart of gold and offers her a better life. But a sinister, outside force tries to keep them apart. Hollywood gave it a happy ending. In Verdi’s version, the heroine is gravely ill. Love helps her hang on until a glorious, three-hanky finale.

About the Composer

Giuseppe Verdi

(1813–1901)

The Italian composer Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born in La Roncole in 1813. When he was a child, Verdi’s parents moved to Busseto, where the future composer’s education was facilitated by visits to the library at the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi was given his first lessons in composition.

Displaying considerable talent from a young age, he was assistant organist at the small local church by the time he was 10. In 1829, at the age of 13, he was an assistant conductor of the Busseto orchestra and an organist at the town church. In 1836, Verdi married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his benefactor, Antonio Barezzi.

At 20, he went to Milan to continue his studies. There, he took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances, as well as concerts of, specifically, German music. It was during that period he decided pursue a career as a theater composer.

His first successful opera, Oberto, opened at La Scala in 1839. However, his next opera, the comedy Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), was a complete failure. To add tragedy to insult, Verdi lost his wife and two young children to illness within the same year, and the despondent composer resolved to give up music altogether.

Fortunately, the manager of La Scala persuaded him to persevere. His next opera, Nabucco, premiered in 1842 to great acclaim. Nabucco secured Verdi’s reputation as a major figure in the music world.

Between 1844 and 1850, Verdi composed at a tremendous rate, demonstrating a maturing style and more flowing musical line, as evidenced in Ernani(1844), Macbeth (1847) and Luisa Miller (1849).

During his “middle period,” Verdi wrote three of his most successful operas: Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853). These were followed by I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers, 1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859), La Forza del Destino(The Force of Destiny, 1862) and Don Carlos (1867). After Aïda (1871), which commemorated the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Verdi retired to his estate at Sant’Agata, where he wrote the great Requiem Mass.

In each of these operas, Verdi expanded the formalism we hear in works like The Barber of Seville to a musical language that is more fluid and which joins the music with the drama. In a sense, Verdi and his German rival, Richard Wagner, were moving on…