Tune in at 11:30 a.m. on March 30 for a live broadcast of Verdi's La Traviata from the Metropolitan Opera.
"'La Traviata' was a fiasco. My fault or the singers'? Time alone will tell."
This was the pronouncement of the opera's composer, Giuseppe Verdi, after the premiere of "La Traviata" in 1853. For any number of reasons, the opening night performance was a disappointment. But as suggested by Verdi's words, couched in his usual blend of gruffness and confidence, he had faith in what he had written.
That faith has turned out to be more than justified. Today, "La Traviata," which the Metropolitan performs this weekend, is one of the world's best-known operas.
It's based on the real-life story of the relationship between the young Alexandre Dumas (the son of the "Three Musketeers" author) and the even younger Marie Duplessix. Though the premiere of the opera used 18th century costumes and sets, many people in that first audience must have known the story was contemporary. Dumas was still alive, and Marie, a courtesan (basically, a kept woman) in the demimonde of Paris, had died of tuberculosis only six years earlier, at age 23.
After Marie's death, Dumas created a fictional version of their story, first in a novel, and then a play. Both the novel and the play enjoyed great success. They in turn provided the impetus for the opera libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, and Verdi's music. As reworked by these artists, the story and characters acquired the dramatic force that has been so compelling to audiences over the years.
In the opera, the couple, now renamed Violetta and Alfredo, enjoy a love affair, which is blissful, but brief. It comes to an end because her scandalous past threatens the reputation of Alfredo's respectable family. They separate, and the ailing Violetta is left alone, without money, in "that populous desert known as Paris." They finally reunite, but it's too late. Violetta's health is gone, and time is against them. (As you'll notice in the slideshow, the Met's production makes the theme of time very visible.)
Verdi's contemporary story has dated in some ways, but the basic themes of the opera continue to resonate: love and marriage, money, respectability, the whirl of big-city life. (Even tuberculosis, sad to say, remains a very current concern.)
The story is innovative, but Verdi chooses to dramatize it with lyrical, even catchy melodies. Numbers like the drinking song, "Sempre libera," "Di Provenza," and "Parigi, o cara," are among his most recognizable creations.
Whatever the shortcomings of its very first performance, Verdi gave "La Traviata" all the elements needed to endow it with lasting success.