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The Essence of Being Human in
Verdi’s La Traviata

by Antoine Stevens-Phillips, Jr

June 2008

Giuseppe Verdi


LA TRAVIATA (The Woman Who Strayed)
by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)
Opera in three acts
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Premiered in Venice, 1853

Michigan Opera Theater
Director: Mario Corrado
Conductor:  Giuliano Carella
May 2008

Michigan Opera Theater’s May 2008 production of Giuseppi Verdi’s “La Traviata” (The Woman Who Strayed) is to be commended for its fine singing and dramatic presentation. The opera, which was performed and staged very well, assisted the audience in grasping some of the higher conceptions which Verdi intended to convey, particularly the concept of the “benefit of the other”, known also as the “general welfare principle.”

Dina Kuznetsova (Violetta), Arturo Chacon Cruz (Alfredo). All photos by John Grigaitis

Verdi develops this universal concept through the transformation the character in the title role, Violetta, la Traviata (Erin Wall, soprano,) a courtesan who frequents degenerate Parisian salons where life centers around drinking, flirting and partying. The audience discovers at the opera’s opening that Violetta also suffers from tuberculosis contracted from her lifestyle. But through her relationship with Alfredo, (Mark Panuccio, tenor), and their move out of Paris into the countryside, she is transformed from a woman of pleasure to a very different person. Erin Wall beautifully conveyed this breakthrough from the axiom of “pleasure,” to that of responsibility, and the audience recognizes in her the development of true human emotions.

Although Violetta is in fact, not the same cheap person she was when Alfredo’s father, Germont (played very well by Luis Ledesma, baritone), pleads with her to “help the family name,” she obliges, and tragedy ensues.

It is clear that Verdi’s opera openly assaults the cultural axioms of mid 19th century Europe, which confuse true happiness and joy with mere pleasure and lust. (We see that same problem in the ‘68ers in society and in our government today.) Verdi constructs a social dynamic which expresses the degeneracy of the French and European culture in the 1850’s, where high society was ‘head over heels’ with pleasure (or vice versa), as were Violetta and Alfredo in the salons of Paris. But Verdi also exposes the aristocratic arrogance, in the name of family and keeping face, which does not allow for true transformations here as well.

The opera succeeds not only because of the profound music and scenes, but also because the composer constructs and unfolds a unique paradox in the emotions of the audience member, through the transformations in the operatic drama. With Violetta rising to the occasion, after having gone through a series of principled challenges such as sacrificing, for the “benefit of the other,” the audience leaves the theater, seeing the tragedy of it all “being too late”, as better people.

Pleasure vs. Happiness

The idea of pleasure seemed to be the remedy for everything, such as illnesses, as Violetta says in Act 1: “I must be happy; I put my faith in pleasure as a cure for all my ills;” pleasure must have helped strengthen religion also as the guest sings, “Let’s take our pleasure of wine, singing and mirth, till the new day dawns on us as in Paradise;” Last but not least, lusting for pleasure must have served as a method for scientific investigation as Violetta says: “A poor, lonely woman abandoned in this teeming desert they call Paris! What can I hope? What should I do? Enjoy myself? Purge into the vortex of pleasure and drown there! Enjoy myself!”

Leporello with oversize hourglass
Dina Kuznetsova (Violetta), Marco di Felice (Germont). All photos by John Grigaitis

One phase of this change comes as Germont sings “Pura siccome un angelo” and asks: Yes. God gave me a daughter as pure as an angel; and if Alfredo (Germont’s son/Violetta’s husband to be) refuses to return to the bosom of his family, the man she loves and who loves her, the one whose wife she was to be, will break the chain that has to bind them in their happiness. I pray you not to change the rose of their love to flowers of sadness. Surely your heart will not deny the prayer I utter now.” Violetta responds in great grief: So, for the wretched woman who’s fallen once, the hope of rising is forever gone! Though God should show His mercy, Man will never forgive her. Say to your daughter, pure as she is and fair, that there’s a victim of misfortune whose one ray of happiness before she dies, is a sacrifice made for her.”

The second phase of change comes quickly, as Violetta says in Act 3: “God knows how many poor souls are suffering while the people enjoy themselves! How much have do we left in the drawer?” Her servant Annina:  “Twenty Louis.” Violetta: “Take ten and give them to the poor.”

The third and rather sublime manifold occurs as Violetta is told by the doctor that she only has a few hours to live.  Alfredo and Germont rush in as Violetta is physically fading, but gathers strength to tell Alfredo: “If some gentle maiden in the springtime of her life should give you her heart, let her be your wife, for such is my wish. Give her this picture and tell her it’s the gift of one whom from heaven, amongst the angels, prays always for her and for you.”  This was a very emotional moment in the opera, and required more passion from Alfredo. Pannacio should develop his legato singing in order to be more expressive.

Music and Politics

The process of shedding the axiomatic slime of pleasure and cultural dirt from Violetta in this series of phase changes, allows the audience to experience insight into the essence of actually being human, which is sacrificing for the “benefit of another’s gain.” In our time, as in Verdi’s, culture is a crucial aspect of statecraft; it helps uplift - or destroy- a population, and this year, it will be decisive in shaping our own nation’s future, especially with a most important Presidential race upon us.

The upcoming election will shape the fate of this country and that of the world, and one would hope that the leaders of the nation learn the lessons of “La Traviata” – that they recognize that the meaning of the Declaration of Independence idea of “the pursuit of happiness” is not the next minute’s pleasure, and that they wake up to change themselves and the nation, AND that they, and we, do it in time.