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This article was written for the programme at Lyric Opera's production of La traviata in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 4, 5, 7 November 2017.

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Violetta ValéryAmore e morte

George Fleeton

Marie Duplessis

There is a scene in chapter vi of the younger Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux camélias (1848) in which Armand Duval insists on, and assists at, the disinterment of his lover Marguerite Gautier’s body at the Cimetière de Montmartre:

‘A great white shroud covered the corpse, closely outlining some of its contours … one of the men put out his hand … and taking hold of it by one end suddenly laid bare the face of Marguerite. It was terrible to see, it is horrible to relate.’

(Heron Books Publication, p 60).

The novel is a fictional account of Dumas’ short love affair with Marie Duplessis, a capricious belle de jour, who died of TB in February 1847, age 23.

Duplessis is buried in Montmartre, and each time I go there - to say a prayer for my friend François Truffaut - her grave always has many white and some red camellias:

‘For twenty-five days of the month the camellias were white, and for five they were red …’

(idem, chapter ii, p 14).

Liebestod

When the somewhat daring stage adaptation of the Dumas novel opened at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in early 1852 (without the Grand Guignol disinterment scene), Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi (whom he would marry seven years later) were residing in Paris.

We don’t know if Verdi attended the production, so we must assume he read about it in the papers for, just over a year later, his and Francesco Maria Piave’s version, La traviata, was on stage at La Fenice in Venice.

When they were collaborating on the opera, their working title was Amore e morte, love in death, or liebestod, the consummation of love in or after death, as for example in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1865).

Indeed the year before he died (1900) Verdi told an interviewer of his admiration for that opera and how he was impressed by Isolde’s final aria, and finest hour: Mild und leise/Dolce e calmo – and, let me add, is there anything else like it in all music?

Manon Lescaut

Of all the literary precedents for La traviata it is the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel L’histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut which cannot be excluded from any discussion of Verdi’s opera, because the broad brush strokes of Prévost’s narrative find many uncanny shades on the palette of Dumas fils’ novel.

Armand had given Prévost’s book to Marguerite, and she had read it over and over again; this was the copy which the narrator of La dame aux camélias bought at the auction of Marguerite’s effects to pay her debts:

‘All at once I heard: “A volume, beautifully bound, gilt-edged, entitled Manon Lescaut. There is something written on the first page. Ten francs.” ’

(idem, chapter iii, p 21).

Having re-read both books recently I still find Dumas’ account tedious, self-serving and repetitive, but poet Piave’s versification of the stage version for Verdi’s opera redeems it from such comment.

By contrast, Prévost’s story is superb, yet Massenet’s librettists (for his opera Manon, 1884) were unable to add any value to the text; and Puccini’s writers (for his opera Manon Lescaut, 1893) tried harder to make it work, but failed because there were too many of them!

So  your mission, Reader  - should you decide to accept it - is to source Magda Olivero and Plácido Domingo’s 1970 live Verona recording of Puccini’s piece  and to compare it with  Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti’s  1969 live La Scala recording of the Massenet version, and get back to me quickly, as this opinion may self-destruct in five seconds.

Violetta: portrait of a lady

In Henry James’ excellent novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Isabel Archer, liberated and fiercely independent, will lose her freedom when it is compromised by the unexpected inheritance of a substantial legacy and, trapped in an unhappy marriage, she must confront her destiny and its consequences, with her integrity and self-respect intact; it will not be easy.

Isabel’s portrait, as sketched and painted by James, was as ground-breaking in its day as Verdi’s Traviata had been almost thirty years earlier.

The fictional lives of Isabel Archer and Violetta Valéry may have been at opposite ends of the melodramatic spectrum yet, as their respective spiritual determinations were ground down by conformity and convention, the choices forced on them are what unites them - in the art and literature of Europe in the 1800s – with so many other strong women such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, the ladies whose portraits defined that long century.

Camille

On stage and later in films, the Duplessis/Gautier/Valéry story quickly became that of Camille; and may I recommend that, after your encounter with our Traviata, you treat yourself to the 1936 film Camille,with Greta Garbo (which is based on the Dumas fils story, not the Verdi opera), and then ask yourself how does an actress make the inevitable death of the heroine a surprise, except through genius, for Garbo’s performance as Marguerite - her finest role in a film - is breathtakingly simple and brief, like a flower deserted by the light.

Amore e morte

Traviata, a brave and vivid change of style for 39 year old Verdi, initially failed in Venice until he doctored it and brought it back a year later for an enthusiastic critical reception and audience favour which have never been rescinded since then.

The unblinking focus in this dramma per musica on the central character - a frail consumptive, a soul in decline - is without precedent in any one of Verdi’s previous eighteen operas.

The Rossinian rubrics of bel canto are practically untraceable in Traviata, but the quintessential elements of early verismo (e.g. the aristotelian unities of time, place and action, the imaginative interpretation of contemporary reality) can just about be discerned in the shadows of its narrative, in which the words describe its  emotional world  while the music conveys it directly.

Violetta, a beautiful, amoral courtesan, in poor health, falls in love with Alfredo, a young man of limited means; she abandons her life of luxury to live with him; but then will unilaterally sacrifice their mutual love to placate the selfish demands of his family...

There is a simplicity and tenderness of expression in this opera which is not to be found elsewhere in Verdi’s preceding works; this helps define it as his most intimate: the concentration of love and grief in to the smallest possible space, namely the final six or seven months of  Violetta’s life.

The women who strayed

Traviarsi means to go astray, whence traviata: led astray, gone astray, as in morally compromised: the life choices of fictional Manon, Marguerite and Violetta, and that of factual Marie Duplessis.

In the case of Marie/Marguerite, the protagonist dies young because she is consumptive and her disease produces in her cravings for pleasure which accelerate her decline.

In the musical architecture of Verdi’s opera this is not forgotten, and when the Venetian censors insisted on him changing the proposed title, Amore e morte, Verdi’s creative juices seem to have been unleashed.

His Traviata is a bold choice, and a very sound one, universal yet topical and modern, like a simple classical tale taken from the legends upon which the Greek tragedians built their evergreen melodramas which, in their turn, were the bases of so many 17th and 18th century operas.

When we meet Violetta she has already risen to the higher echelons of the demi-monde of Paris; think of her wearing Yeats’  ‘Cloths of Heaven’,

'…enwrought with golden and silver light, the blue and the dim and the dark cloths, of night and light and the half light…'

 (from The Wind among the Reeds, 1899).

When she meets Alfredo Germont, at a party which she is hosting, she is strangely moved by his confession of love - È strano - she thinks about it - Ah, forse lui - decides it is madness - Follie! -  and declares that she must always be free - Sempre libera - to seek out new pleasures.

But, in one of the biggest jump-cuts in all opera, we find them living together in a country house outside Paris, five months later, very happy but with little or no income.

Then, in a veritable coup de théâtre, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, arrives out of the blue and browbeats Violetta into leaving his son, at no matter what cost to her health and well-being.

She is crushed, and in tears tells him: Ah! Dite alla giovine, si bella e pura - ‘yes, tell your daughter that a poor and wretched woman, who has only one precious thing in her life, her love for your son, will sacrifice it for her, and then will die’.

This scene, a variation of the many parent-child relationships which permeate Verdi operas, is at the very heart of the piece, the fulcrum of the opera, the breaking wheel to which Violetta will remain attached, until her final, fleeting moment of redemption.

A month later, now terminally ill, she reads a letter, starting Teneste la promessa, from a remorseful Giorgio Germont who now appreciates the enormous sacrifice she has made.

But it is too late – È tardi! Attendo, attendo! - and she sings farewell to her dissolute past - Addio, del passato -  and begs God’s pardon on a woman who strayed, a traviata.

 ©georgefleetonmmxvii