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La Traviata – An Introduction
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La Traviata – An Introduction

by George Fleeton © 2013

George Fleeton

George Fleeton

On June 05 I was invited to give the pre-performance Talk, on the first night of Lyric Opera Productions’ staging of La Traviata, in the Gaiety Theatre Dublin, to celebrate the 200thanniversary of Verdi’s birth.

Some of the keynotes of that Talk are reproduced here, with the kind permission of Cavaliere Vivian Coates, the company’s General and Artistic Director.

We hope that they’ll serve as an Introduction to one of the finest Italian operas of the mid-19thcentury.

It is precisely 160 years since Giuseppe Verdi stood at the back of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on the opening night of his 19th opera La Traviata, held his head in his hands and muttered something like ‘complete fiasco.’

So who was this Traviata, this fallen woman, Violetta?

Like so many fictional characters, she did have an historical antecedent, a young courtesan, a kept woman,  called Marie Duplessis, who was mistress to, among many others, Alexandre Dumas the Younger, in 1840s Paris.

After their affair, Dumas wrote a novel about her, a year after her death from TB, age 23.

His book – in which Duplessis was called Marguerite Gautier – was then adapted for the Paris stage, about four years later, as The Lady of the Camellias / La Dame aux camélias.

That’s when we believe it was seen by Verdi, on a visit to Paris, and within a year he had written his Traviata, in which our heroine was now called Violetta Valéry.

Maria Callas, who was born in New York 90 years ago this December, sang Violetta 63 times between 1951 and 1958.

She is still regarded as the finest, deepest interpreter of this role.

Verdi, who was born in rural Italy 200 years ago, had up to this point written 18 operas, mostly historical dramas, of which we can perhaps easily recall earlier works such as Macbeth, Attila,Ernani.

In early 1853, age 40, he was in Rome putting the finishing touches to Il Trovatore while working on La Traviata, due for Venice less than seven weeks later.

But what was not widely known was that the composer had radically changed tack and was intent on breaking new ground with La Traviata, originally to be called Amore e Morte / Love and Death.

And so it became the first grown-up opera about contemporary life, a metropolitan opera and a milestone of upper crust social realism, rather than a heavily romanticised version of history: more Great Gatsby perhaps than Les Misérables?

This approach was something picked up on later by Puccini, and then by Broadway and Hollywood.

One example is that insidiously sentimental film Pretty Woman, from 1990, in which Julia Roberts plays a Hollywood hooker, who is picked up by corporate mogul Richard Gere, and given the ultimate make-over.

He then takes her in his private jet to San Francisco Opera, where she makes all kinds of social gaffes, before taking her seat, more open-minded and sensitive than the over-dressed poseurs around her, to watch a performance of La Traviata, which seems to appeal directly to her emotions, but without her realising the similarities in her life to that of Violetta.

Traviata is a lovely story, and it has no borders.

In its time, it was bold and unconventional; it was also aimed – in plot, character and music – directly at the heart, something which Puccini did 40 years later with Manon Lescaut and La Bohème.

Like Mozart, Verdi fell in love with many of his female creations (Gilda, Leonora, Violetta, Aida, Desdemona).

And this opera bears witness to that and to his formidable mature powers as a dramatist and composer who brought these characters to vivid life.

Violetta, a very unfortunate, fallen woman (Verdi referred to her as his ‘poor sinner’) has the lioness’s share of the music, in each of the three Acts of this particular opera.

In fact she dominates the piece as no previous Verdi heroine has done; and her presence gives life and individuality to two male characters who would otherwise be wooden and one dimensional.

She may be the creation of a poet, but she is a hedonist, with indifferent health, who abandons her chosen promiscuous life style for the love of one man, then returns to it under colossal pressure from that man’s father.

In Act 2, where she finally agrees to her wretched, life-sapping pact with Alfredo’s father, and is crushed by his patriarchal authority, there is the most beautifully written scene which is the very fulcrum, the core moment of the opera, when the music seems to be shaped entirely by her feelings, as Violetta serenely re-writes her destiny.

In any other Verdi opera, this could be a dialogue of reluctant reconciliation between a father and a daughter.

Parent-children relationships are a very strong plot element  in so many of Verdi’s  operas – Miller and his daughter Luisa, Gilda and her father Rigoletto the court jester, Azucena and her presumed son Manrico the trovatore, Boccanegra and his daughter Maria – and so on.

This opera is short; it is a musica da camera, or salon piece, a very private opera in which the choral pieces and waltz rhythms seem to intrude on Violetta’s personal space.

The dramatic structure of Traviata-as-theatre is as different from Rigoletto and Il Trovatore as they are different from each other.

And Traviata also presaged, in ways no one could see at the time, the verismo of Carmen, and ofTosca, decades later.

At ago 40, Verdi’s work had reached a plateau; the bar had been set very high, both  for himself and for others, and he stayed there for another 40 years, until his final work Falstaff at La Scala in 1893.

So this opera is as tightly constructed as Carmen or Tosca, and there are inspired musical ideas and motifs throughout, which, for the first time in Verdi, speak directly to us – the watchers and listeners out there in the dark.

The melodic style is simple, and the plot and music themes progress, in parallel, in small, irretrievable steps to a tragic denouément.

The version we use today is Verdi’s revision from 1854, with the improved, definitive score.

The greatest moments of Traviata have unprecedented simplicity, and extreme refinement: for this is Italian lyric opera pared down to its finest.

Verdi, like Mozart, unlike Wagner, had the ability to convey in a few bars what other composers struggled to say in a whole aria.

Is this why we find the principal characters in Traviata to be refreshingly believable, and Violetta’s dilemmas to be dramatically credible but ultimately heart-wrenching?

A final thought, inspired by this particular production: Dublin may be the only European capital city without an opera house; is it also becoming the only one with no regular, indigenous, fully-staged operas?

If in doubt, ask yourself what’s left if you take productions such as this Traviata out of the equation.

And the situation in Belfast is no better.

Last November-December, I wrote a series of five essays for Down News called ‘Opera in Ireland – State of Play’.

Have I any positive news, this year, to add to those analyses?

No, none so far.

George Fleeton’s next light classical music Recitals take place in Down Arts Centre Downpatrick on June 20 and 27, each at 1.05pm

The first Recital features baritone Donald Maxwell and soprano Catherine Harper.

The second Recital celebrates the voices of tenor Eugene O’Hagan and mezzo-soprano Debra Stuart.

On both occasions the pianist is Elizabeth Bicker.

See www.downartscentre.com for details.