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Life and Art in Verdi’s Traviata

by Robert Bowen
 November 2013

Giuseppe Verdi.

La Traviata 
Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave
Conductor: Leonardo Vordoni 
Director: Mario Corradi
Michigan Opera Theatre
November 16, 2013

Violetta – Nicole Cabell, soprano
Alfredo – Leonardo Caimi, tenor
Germont – Stephen Powell, baritone
Flora – Ashley Maria Bahri Kashat, soprano
Marchese D’Obigny – Evan Ross, bass-baritone
Baron Douphol – Jonathan Christopher, baritone
Doctor Grenvil – Mark E. Watson, bass-baritone
Gastone – Johnathan Riesen, bass-baritone
Annina – Danielle Wright, mezzo

John Grigaitis, Detroit Opera House
Violetta and Alfredo in Paris.

If one digs deep enough, there’s always something in the technical details of almost any artistic presentation to criticize, a tendency that most professionals have turned into a fetish, exposing nothing more prominently than their apparent lack of any true comprehension of (or interest in) the historical motivations of the artist.  More ominously, in some cases, it may be intentional obfuscation.   Mostly, they "miss the forest for the trees."    All those works of art worthy of the appellation ‘Great’ share one thing in common – the artists’ commitment to truth.   The two-fold challenge for modern performers is to grasp the truth intended by the artist and communicate that truth to their audience in such a way that the experience lifts the members of the audience to a higher moral standpoint from which to view and judge society and themselves.

The MOT performance of Verdi’s La Traviata on November 16th 2013 was largely successful, with the exception of the unnecessary addition to Verdi’s staging of Violetta romping in the bedroom during the overture. But for the most part, the voices were excellent and Maestro Vordoni maintained a balance that allowed for nearly flawless transparency of the dialogue between voice and orchestra, which has not been the case in some previous MOT performances.   The music, the subdued elegance of the set, and the costumes presented all the elements necessary to focus the audience’s imagination on the true subject (subtext) of the unfolding drama, without distraction. Of special note is the presentation by Stephen Powell, baritone, of the transformation of Germont, from a staunch defender of oligarchic tradition with a cold shoulder of moral indifference, to a man capable of compassion.

John Grigaitis, Detroit Opera House
Alfredo and his father Germont

La Traviata was composed and first performed in 1853.  At that time, Italy was in the middle of the struggle against the Austrian Empire that culminated in Italian Independence in 1860, and Verdi’s work was a significant inspirational factor in providing confidence to the population in that independence struggle, both as composer (eg. his “Va Pensiero” chorus became the anthem of the Italian partisans) and, after Independence, as a member of the Italian Parliament.   So, why did Verdi compose La Traviata?  For money?  For simple entertainment?  Was there no higher purpose?  Why did he and his librettist Piave have to be concerned with censorship?  What did the authorities of the time see in Verdi’s work that was so threatening?

Verdi wrote that La Traviata was to be staged in the contemporary dress of the 1850s, although in Verdi's time, managers thought it way too risky, and it was not for decades that this was done.  Verdi paints an accurate picture not only of the Parisian aristocracy of the day, but also a striking reflection the culture degradation of our own times. The story, based on the play "La Dame aux Camélias" by  Alexandre Dumas-fils, was risky enough – a Parisian courtesan lives a luxurious, but completely empty life, and is sick with consumption, when true human emotions are awakened in her by Alfredo.  They leave the degenerate Paris scene, they are transformed, her health improves, but their idyllic and promising future is ended when Alfredo's father, Germont, comes to Violetta, to insist in a "fatherly" way that she leave his son due to her past, in order to protect his family name. She complies, for love, and by the time Alfredo learns the truth of her situation, it is too late. 

Verdi’s own disdain for gossip, his legendary rejection of the empty, popular, banal lifestyle desired by so many was evident in this opera. “La Traviata” was, and is, as a mirror held up to every audience, directing its assault not only to the aristocracy and its pretenders, but to all who might  prefer “good appearances” to the truth.

John Grigaitis, Detroit Opera House
Violetta and Alfredo on her death bed.

Although one of the most-performed operas in the world to this day, the premiere in Venice was not successful.  Verdi wrote to his friend Muzio, saying  "Dear Emanuele, Traviata last night – a fiasco. Was it my fault or the singers? Time will tell."  Indeed, the potential and power of the opera was evident to many impresarios, and many wanted to stage it. But Verdi wouldn't contract La Traviata performances until he approved the singers, the management, and more. When he was approached about a production in Naples, Verdi said to his friend di Sanctis, "Ah, so you like my Traviata, that poor sinner who had such bad luck in Venice. One day I shall make the world do honor to her. But not in Naples, where your priests would be horrified to see on the stage the kind of things they do at night on the quiet." Verdi searched for suitable singers in various cities, but it was back in Venice, a year after the premiere "fiasco", that La Traviata was presented (at a different opera house), to great acclaim by critics and the population. 

It’s clear from his life and his work that Verdi is passionately committed to freedom.  But, not just political freedom, nor the pretense of ‘freedom’ expressed in the meaningless pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake that we are introduced to in the opening of the opera.  Rather, that quality of freedom of the human spirit expressed perhaps most profoundly by the founding fathers of the American Republic whose intensions and achievements were the inspiration for the freedom movements sweeping Europe in the middle of the 19th Century.   Verdi is challenging the oligarchical, rigid class structure of the society of his time and at the same time challenging the population today, to rise above the pettiness of a search for the garden of earthly delights, to discover joy in compassion for the common aims of all mankind.