La Traviata

Music by Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA PRODUCTION 

Violetta Valéry may be the most heart-wrenching character in all of opera: a high-spirited but deceptively delicate woman who unexpectedly finds, and then selflessly gives up, the love of her all-too-short life. Her story will be brought to the stage by two spectacular casts. One features Nicole Cabell, a winner of the BBC Singer of the World Competition whose Company debut in 2012’s The Capulets and the Montagues was praised for its “sheer sumptuous gorgeousness” (San Jose Mercury News); tenor Saimir Pirgu is Violetta’s lover Alfredo, whose depiction of the role is "right on vocally as well as dramatically" (Associated Press); and Vladimir Stoyanov, praised by The New York Times for his "warm, attractive voice." The other is led by Ailyn Pérez, whose performance of the role at London’s Royal Opera House was hailed as “an unalloyed triumph” (The Guardian, London); Stephen Costello, "an ascending voice in opera" with an "engaging, pure voice" (Philadelphia Inquirer); and the "triumphant" and "splendid" Quinn Kelsey (San Francisco Chronicle).

For a complete listing of La Traviata performances at San Francisco Opera, visit our online performance archive.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours including two intermissions

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Production photos: Cory Weaver.
Additional photo: Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera.

Audio excerpts from La Traviata with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Donald Runnicles, 2009.


Cast

Violetta Valéry Nicole Cabell JUN 11, 14, 17, 20, 25, 29
Violetta Valéry Ailyn Pérez JUL 5, 8, 11, 13
Alfredo Germont Saimir Pirgu JUN 11, 14, 25, 29
Alfredo Germont Stephen Costello JUN 17, 20; JUL 5, 8, 11, 13
Giorgio Germont Vladimir Stoyanov * JUN 11, 14, 17, 20, 25, 29
Giorgio Germont Quinn Kelsey JUL 5, 8, 11, 13
Flora Bervoix Zanda Svede *
Gastone Daniel Montenegro
Baron Douphol Dale Travis
Marquis d'Obigny Hadleigh Adams
Doctor Grenvil Andrew Craig Brown *
Annina Erin Johnson
Giuseppe Christopher Jackson
Flora's Servant Torlef Borsting
Messenger Bojan Knežević

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti JUN 11, 14, 17, 20, 25, 29
Conductor Giuseppe Finzi JUL 5, 8, 11, 13
Original Director John Copley
Director Laurie Feldman
Set Designer John Conklin
Costume Designer David Walker
Lighting Designer Gary Marder
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Yaelisa . *
Fight Director Dave Maier

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I
In her Paris salon, the courtesan Violetta Valéry greets party guests, including Flora Bervoix, the Marquis d'Obigny, Baron Douphol, and Gastone, who introduces a new admirer, Alfredo Germont. This young man, having adored Violetta from afar, joins her in a drinking song (Brindisi: "Libiamo"). An orchestra is heard in the next room, but as guests move there to dance, Violetta suffers a fainting spell, sends the guests on ahead, and goes to her parlor to recover. Alfredo comes in, and since they are alone, confesses his love ("Un dì felice"). At first Violetta protests that love means nothing to her. Something about the young man's sincerity touches her, however, and she promises to meet him the next day. After the guests have gone, Violetta wonders if Alfredo could actually be the man she could love ("Ah, fors'è lui"). But she decides she wants freedom ("Sempre libera"), though Alfredo's voice, heard outside, argues in favor of romance.

ACT II
Some months later Alfredo and Violetta are living in a country house near Paris, where he praises their contentment ("De' miei bollenti spiriti"). But when the maid, Annina, reveals that Violetta has pawned her jewels to keep the house, Alfredo leaves for the city to settle matters at his own cost. Violetta comes looking for him and finds an invitation from Flora to a party that night. Violetta has no intention of going back to her old life, but trouble intrudes with the appearance of Alfredo's father. Though impressed by Violetta's ladylike manners, he demands she renounce his son: the scandal of Alfredo's affair with her has threatened his daughter's engagement ("Pura siccome un angelo"). Violetta says she cannot, but Germont eventually convinces her ("Dite alla giovine"). Alone, the desolate woman sends a message of acceptance to Flora and begins a farewell note to Alfredo. He enters suddenly, surprising her, and she can barely control herself as she reminds him of how deeply she loves him ("Amami, Alfredo") before rushing out. Now a servant hands Alfredo her farewell note as Germont returns to console his son with reminders of family life in Provence ("Di Provenza"). But Alfredo, seeing Flora's invitation, suspects Violetta has thrown him over for another lover. Furious, he determines to confront her at the party.

At her soirée that evening, Flora learns from the Marquis that Violetta and Alfredo have parted, then clears the floor for hired entertainers - a band of fortune-telling Gypsies and some matadors who sing of Piquillo and his coy sweetheart ("E Piquillo un bel gagliardo"). Soon Alfredo strides in, making bitter comments about love and gambling recklessly at cards. Violetta has arrived with Baron Douphol, who challenges Alfredo to a game and loses a small fortune to him. Everyone goes in to supper, but Violetta has asked Alfredo to see her. Fearful of the Baron's anger, she wants Alfredo to leave, but he misunderstands her apprehension and demands that she admit she loves Douphol. Crushed, she pretends she does. Now Alfredo calls in the others, denounces his former love and hurls his winnings at her feet ("Questa donna conoscete?"). Germont enters in time to see this and denounces his son's behavior. The guests rebuke Alfredo and Douphol challenges him to a duel.

ACT III
In Violetta's bedroom six months later, Dr. Grenvil tells Annina her mistress has not long to live: tuberculosis has claimed her. Alone, Violetta rereads a letter from Germont saying the Baron was only wounded in his duel with Alfredo, who knows all and is on his way to beg her pardon. But Violetta senses it is too late ("Addio del passato"). Paris is celebrating Mardi Gras and, after revelers pass outside, Annina rushes in to announce Alfredo. The lovers ecstatically plan to leave Paris forever ("Parigi, o cara"). Germont enters with the doctor before Violetta is seized with a last resurgence of strength. Feeling life return, she staggers and falls dead at her lover's feet.

A Woman of Singular Complexity

Thomas May

 

Download a PDF of the article


Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet (1832-83) (oil on canvas)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library

On New Year’s Day of 1853, Giuseppe Verdi wrote about the challenges of finding suitable libretti: “I want subjects that are new, great, beautiful, varied, daring … and daring to an extreme degree, with new forms, etc., and at the same time [that are] capable of being set to music.”
 
The thirty-nine-year-old composer goes on to mention his latest project, a new opera for La Fenice in Venice. Based on La Dame aux Camélias, the recent stage sensation by Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Verdi writes, “[it] will probably be called La Traviata. A subject for our own age. Another composer would perhaps not have done it because of the costumes, the period, or a thousand other foolish scruples, but I did it with great pleasure. Everyone complained when I proposed putting a hunchback on the stage. Well, I wrote Rigoletto with great pleasure.”
 
Even set against his bold treatments of Victor Hugo and Shakespeare, Verdi was fully aware that he was taking an unusual risk by adapting such contemporary material for the opera stage.  It was one thing to lace his operas with “topical” political themes for the liberals’ drive to unite Italy (at the time divided among foreign powers), but something else altogether to address contemporary sexual mores and issues of social class not as light-hearted comedy but as full-on tragedy.
 
Still, for us today, it’s admittedly hard to think of La Traviata as controversial. This nineteenth work in Verdi’s oeuvre is not just a box office guarantee, but for many the very definition of opera. Over the past five years La Traviata has securely held its position as the opera most frequently performed globally. Violetta even surpasses her fellow tubercular Parisian, La Bohème’s Mimì, as far as this measurement of popularity goes. And popular culture is replete with variations on both stories: for the hip Bohemians of Rent, there is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!
 
The irony of this is rich, because with La Traviata Verdi intended for the first time to have an opera staged with contemporary dress, though in the event he was compelled to accede to the Venetian censors’ demand to shift the period back to “circa 1700” as a comfortable temporal buffer.  In later revivals Verdi acquiesced to this historical distancing. As a consequence, by the time operagoers finally encountered stagings of Verdi’s original vision of a work set in the era in which it was composed, La Traviata had already become a “period piece.” One of the chief arguments against directorial updatings—that they betray the composer’s original “intentions”—has to take into account this sort of compromise constantly imposed on Verdi in order to get the subjects he chose to set to music produced.
 
But the issue of Traviata’s temporal setting represents the mere surface. Verdi expert Julian Budden points out that the lofty language indulged in by Verdi’s ever-compliant, ever-bullied librettist for the project Francesco Maria Piave, at times ventures far from Dumas, giving an overall impression that is old-fashioned and “strictly operatic.” As a result, “even if [Verdi] had had his way in 1853 the modern setting would have seemed purely metaphorical.”
 
Instead, the bold modernity of La Traviata—the sense that this is “a subject for our own age”—has to do with the challenges Verdi set himself to grapple with a new kind of psychological realism: intimate, internal emotions as opposed to the grand passions that burn in Traviata’s swashbuckling immediate predecessor, Il Trovatore. Indeed, at one point Verdi was working on both operas concurrently, and the most identifiably Trovatore-like moments in the score of Traviata are precisely those in which Verdi adheres most obviously to the conventional forms of the cabaletta (the flashy final section of a lengthy aria or duet).
 
That psychological realism was prompted by the subject matter of high-class prostitution and intimate relationships projected against the screen of modern urban life, with its ugly realities and fears, in particular those of poverty, alienation, and disease. In La Traviata Verdi turns to the raw facts of everyday life as experienced by people we can recognize. If we consider the realm of visual arts, the revolution represented by Édouard Manet in this regard still lies ahead: in 1863 he caused consternation by representing prostitution in Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.
 
Not until a pair of works that premiered in 1816 did Italian opera begin to represent death onstage: Michele Carafa's Gabriella di Vergy and Otello by Verdi’s contemporary Gioachino Rossini. And the terrifying details of death by tuberculosis had no operatic precedent. (Those, like Puccini’s La Bohème, were still decades in the future.)  Our first glimpse of the heroine onstage, in fact, specifies that she is consulting with Doctor Grenvil in the middle of her party. For a more-pertinent perspective on the contemporary and moral relevance of the situation depicted by Dumas and Verdi, it may be useful to think of the original impact of plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America in daring to channel the emotions caused by the AIDS crisis for the stage.
 
The fear of La Traviata’s corporeality and representation of disease, as pointed out by Julie A. Buckler in The Literary Lorgnette, is inevitably linked with anxiety about its representation of sexuality. In his first private encounter with Violetta, Alfredo warns that her lifestyle is killing her and she needs to take better care of her health—indeed she begins to convalesce during their idyll in the country, far from the sensual stimulation of Paris. Violetta’s situation fuses together the three major themes of sex, sickness, and money.
 
Susan Sontag handily characterizes this fusion in her influential Illness as Metaphor, emphasizing the connotations shared by frivolous spending (with its implications of sexual promiscuity) and “consumption,” the word commonly used for tuberculosis: “Early capitalism assumes the necessity of regulated spending, saving, accounting, discipline—an economy that depends on the rational limitation of desire. TB is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of nineteenth-century homo economicus: consumption; wasting; squandering of vitality.”
 
Much has been made of the immediate enthusiasm with which Verdi reacted to seeing Dumas’s play while he was staying in Paris in 1852, soon after it opened. Despite the pressures of getting Trovatore produced, Verdi simultaneously completed his score for Traviata at record speed. Of course it is an inherently dangerous prospect to attempt to tease out connections between an artist’s personal life and an autonomous work of art. Budden belabors that point by ridiculing the commonplace assumption that Verdi responded so strongly to Violetta’s story because, by this time, he was cohabiting with Giuseppina Strepponi, a former singer regarded as a woman of “loose virtue” on account of her illegitimate children from previous affairs.
 
Yet Verdi hardly need have fictionalized Giuseppina as Violetta to be attracted to the themes involved in La Dame aux Camélias—and to the larger archetype of real or perceived “fallen women” he created in six operas between 1849 and 1853, as examined by the late Joseph Kerman in his essay “Verdi and the Undoing of Women.” These women, who “are condemned for their sexuality” and as a result “suffer or die,” “may have allowed the composer a way to reflect on the social and private implications of his affair.”
 
Writes Kerman: “Of course Verdi would never have dreamt of equating Strepponi with Violetta. The point is that Violetta allowed him to explore feelings of love, guilt, and suffering that he learned from his experience as Strepponi’s lover.” Verdi explored similar feelings in other operas around the same time, though Kerman adds that “the fallen woman syndrome retreats” from his work after Traviata.
 


Marie Duplessis at the Theatre by Camille-Joseph-Etienne Roqueplan (1800-55), (watercolor on paper)
Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library
 

The source material for La Traviata—the play by Dumas, in turn adapted from his very first literary success, a novel published in 1848—itself stands in a complicated relationship to the “raw data” of the author’s experience, even if some degree of both the novel’s and the play’s popularity involved the titillating glimpses they afforded “behind the scenes” into the illicit liaisons of well-to-do Parisian society.
 
Dumas’s novel includes nitty-gritty details about the day-to-day life of a high-class prostitute. Naming his heroine Marguerite Gauthier, Dumas famously drew on his real-life affair with the already legendary courtesan Marie Duplessis but has long been castigated by feminists—as has La Traviata, to be sure—for co-opting a woman’s experience, distorting Duplessis’s own autonomy through the filter of male desire and creating a hybrid “Madonna–whore” to fulfill the full spectrum of that desire.
 
And what about Verdi’s treatment of the character originally inspired by Duplessis? In her biography of the Marie Duplessis, The Girl Who Loved Camellias, Julie Kavanagh finds that both Dumas and Verdi “capitulated to the romantic ideal that sought to exonerate and desexualize the fallen woman.” In Verdi’s opera, the “sordid” details of Violetta’s profession are essentially erased, her disease filling its place. She is in fact “etherealized”: Un dì, felice, eterea (“One day you appeared before me, happy, ethereal”) sings Alfredo in his early confession of love.
Indeed, the very first music Verdi gives us, in the Prelude—a musical portrait of Violetta—is a kind of sonic dematerialization. Divided violins suggest a sickly halo for this suffering saint. The Prelude as a whole captures the heroine’s ambiguity: a woman who has sacrificed for love but who has also been defined by her devotion to pleasure. Despite having to shift the period of the action, Verdi incorporates an unmistakable sense of place—the modern city par excellence, Paris, an epicenter of pleasure—through the endlessly dancing gestures of his music. Waltz time is the identifiable signature of La Traviata; later, in the third-act prelude, the “halo” music is supplemented by a haunting melody breathing the melodic spirit of Chopin.

Why has La Traviata remained so enduringly contemporary for all its Romantic sublimation of the characters’ sexuality? If the plot shows Violetta being victimized, “redeemed” by her sacrifice, it is ultimately the music Verdi imagined that mediates our experience of these events. Take, above all, the remarkable duet between Violetta and Giorgio Germont that is the hinge of the opera—a duet far more involved in its musical design and emotional range than the two we get in the outer acts for the pair of lovers. We might be chagrined by Violetta’s willingness to accede to the senior Germont’s demands, but the music lays bare the psychological intensity both characters experience at each stage of the argument. “Germont is not the monster of patriarchal authority that he is in the play,” Kerman writes. “Music recasts him as a fellow human being who moves her by his own unhappiness.”

Overall, Verdi still found it necessary at this point in his career to balance the expectations represented by the conventional formalities of Italian opera with the unique musical needs of a particular dramatic situation. That explains how La Traviata can seem to look ahead, particularly in its novelty of material and psychological acumen, while economically adhering to the mold of the Italian operatic tradition Verdi had inherited. 

In their recent A History of Opera, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker draw attention to this paradox, noting that “this outward conformity” to musical tradition disguises two key ways in which the opera “breaks new ground.” One is the series of musical cues—above all the waltz, with its implications of “social velocity and uncertainty”—that provide local color and root the drama in the modern urban world, whatever the visuals may have signaled. More important, for Abbate and Parker, is the expansion from “exquisite solo expression” to the confrontation of the great duet in Act Two. The story, they write, “confronts some of the most vexed issues surrounding sexuality, not least whether women had the right to choose their own destinies. These were matters that preoccupied people at the time, but had never before been raised so overtly on the operatic stage.”

La Traviata, then, reminds us of the potential for opera to remain relevant, to innovate while staying true to the universal. And the depth and dimension of Verdi’s portrayal of Violetta, who stands apart in the composer’s canon as a heroine of singular complexity, will continue to pose an inexhaustible challenge to singers—and to fascinate audiences as long as opera is performed.

—Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera and blogs at memeteria.com. 

 

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La Traviata

Giuseppe Finzi

A Q&A with San Francisco Opera's Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi


 

Talk about the first time you heard La Traviata…
My first “meeting” with Traviata was when I was ten. I was boy soprano in my hometown chorus [in Bari, Italy] and we performed the entire piece. I was completely swept up in it—the soloists, the singing, the music. It made a huge impression on me, one that is still there.

When did you first conduct the opera?
I first conducted La Traviata about ten years ago in Cosenza, which is in the south of Italy. I made my debut as a conductor there with Tosca, and I conducted Traviata soon after that. The cast was incredible, especially for the size of the theater, and I was lucky to have that experience so early in my career.

What makes La Traviata one of Verdi’s most beloved works?
That’s a big question. I think we need to understand the history of this piece. There is meaning in every single note of that fantastic score, and that was a novelty at the time. Audiences during the premiere went to enjoy opera for the singing and the melodies, not to be engrossed in a story. That gets taken for granted today, but seeing something so moving about a subject that was a little scandalous was a big deal back then. Verdi was ahead of his time. Traviata is dramatic, the music is genius, it’s a masterpiece; it’s impossible not to love it.

You consider San Francisco Opera as your second home. What makes it so special?
The first thing that comes to mind is the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. We are so lucky to have this world-class group. But more importantly, they are a family. Opera is a complicated art form, but the orchestra makes it easy because they play exquisitely and make everything feel easy. They are a dream to work with.

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La Traviata: Past Casts at San Francisco Opera

A look at past San Francisco Opera casts of Verdi's masterwork


San Francisco Opera's Violetta of 1932 was Claudia Muzio


Giuseppe Valdengo (Giorgio), Jan Peerce (Alfredo), and stage director Armando Agnini in 1948.


Licia Albanese, who turns 101 in July, as Violetta in our 1953 production


Joan Sutherland sang 11 roles with San Francisco Opera, including Violetta in 1964


Beverly Sills sang the title role of La Traviata in 1973


Marcello Giordani as Alfredo in our 1991 production


Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Giorgio) and Rolando Villazon (Alfredo) were the troubled father-son duo in 2004


Anna Netrebko appeared as Violetta in 2009

 

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"The evening's brightest luminary was Ailyn Pérez. Her singing was full-bodied and rich in color, with long-breathed phrases sumptuously sustained and an emotional depth to everything she undertook."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
As Alfredo, Stephen Costello "sounded vibrant and shapely, full of the exuberance of newfound love, and he brought sweetness and ardor to the last act."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
As the elder Germont, Quinn Kelsey "was a gift...his instrument sings with uncommon freedom and beauty as it soars to an easy and open top."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"It is Pérez’s artistry, Costello’s ardor, Kelsey’s mellifluous instrument, and Verdi’s glorious melodies that continue to sing long after the curtain closes on Violetta’s heartbreak."
"Soprano Nicole Cabell gave a deeply nuanced performance"

Saimir Pirgu "was especially convincing when expressing anger in the Act 3 party at Flora's house."

"Stoyanov exhibited a fine voice, strong and even throughout the range"

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi led a vigorous and sensitive account of the score."
Nicole Cabell "brought her considerable vocal glamour to bear on a rich and haunting account of Violetta's last-act aria 'Addio del passato.'"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"A performance rich in grandeur and orchestral detail."
"Music Director Nicola Luisotti led the Opera Orchestra in a moving, beautifully colored reading of Verdi's masterful score.... this performance was rich in grandeur and orchestral detail."

"Nicole Cabell produced lovely, pure-toned sound, and she imparted a fresh, alluring quality to her Act I aria, 'Ah, fors'è lui.'"

Saimir Pirgu "sang attractively in Act II's 'De miei bollenti spiriti.'"

Vladimir Stoyanov "made an impressive company debut as Germont...with his strong, secure vocalism."

  –San Jose Mercury News

Traviata Spotlight

Hear Ailyn Pérez discuss her role as Violetta Valéry in Richard Eyre’s 2011 production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House.

Performances

  • Wed 06/11/14 7:30pm

  • Sat 06/14/14 8:00pm

  • Tue 06/17/14 8:00pm

  • Fri 06/20/14 8:00pm *

  • Wed 06/25/14 7:30pm *

  • Sun 06/29/14 2:00pm *

  • Sat 07/5/14 8:00pm

  • Tue 07/8/14 7:30pm

  • Fri 07/11/14 8:00pm

  • Sun 07/13/14 2:00pm

FINAL PERFORMANCES THIS WEEKEND! Buy tickets online or call (415) 864-3330.

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

Company Sponsor Edmund W. and Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Fund is proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by the Burgess and Elizabeth Jamieson Fund, Koret Foundation, Tad and Dianne Taube and United Airlines.

Nicola Luisotti's appearance made possible by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, Chairs, Amici di Nicola of Camerata.


  


Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.