That decision to make a sacrifice for the greater good came back to me recently as I was thinking about La Traviata, whose stature as one of the world’s most treasured operas seems undiminished, 164 years after its world premiere at Venice’s La Fenice. La Traviata remains one of the works I never tire of. Despite its brilliance as a music drama, its ongoing popularity surprises me in a way, because I can’t help but feel that the idea that the entire opera turns on—personal redemption through self-sacrifice—is one that may not have much currency in our present social, cultural, and political climate—at least in the United States. We are living in a time where instant gratification is the force that compels most of us; driven on by the speedy advances of the technological revolution, our collective attention span is shrinking by the day, and we seem to be losing the patience to work our way through much of anything that’s too complicated. I would think that modern audiences—the ones I see texting throughout the performances—would not necessarily respond to the staggering choice that is foisted upon Violetta by her lover Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont.
I first saw La Traviata in the theater in 1983 at the Metropolitan Opera. Partly thanks to my own neophyte status as an opera-goer, I responded to it principally as a story of a woman dying of tuberculosis. As I studied it, its central theme of personal redemption became clear to me. Redemption is something that figures prominently in dozens of operas in the standard repertoire, from the Marschallin’s surrender of Octavian at the end of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier to Blanche de la Force’s march to the guillotine at the climax of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It had long been a potent theme in scores of the world’s great novels, from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which features Sydney Carton’s immortal observation, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
In these literary works, the idea of redemption is sometimes more implicit than literal. In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the reader is invited to think that part of what drives the Governess to purge the evil presence from her young charges—whether or not it really exists—may be the need to redeem her own troubled past. And James’ Daisy Miller, who flaunts European social conventions without batting an eye, is offered a chance at redemption. When the fierce society matron Mrs. Walker sees Daisy walking openly in public with her Italian suitor, she offers the girl the refuge of her carriage, making it clear that it is a chance for her to save herself. Daisy refuses, continues her budding romance with the Italian—and dies of roman fever as a result.
The theme of redemption turns up frequently in Verdi’s operas. But he never plumbed the theme as deeply or as personally as he did in La Traviata. Verdi was drawn to Alexandre Dumas fils’ play La Dame aux Camélias (in turn adapted from Dumas’ 1848 novel) as a source largely because he was aching to tackle a contemporary subject. Marie Duplessis, the stylish courtesan who was the real-life basis for Dumas’ heroine Marguerite Gautier and eventually for Verdi’s Violetta, was still much talked about in Parisian circles, having died only in February 1847. Verdi was entering his first great period of innovation as a musical dramatist, having recently dared to put a hunchback center stage in Rigoletto, and having made the Gypsy Azucena a centerpiece of Il Trovatore. Now he wanted to create a bracingly modern work for La Fenice, by making a woman of dubious reputation his heroine. Most of his biographers agree that probably he was equally driven to make a bold dramatic statement in response to the criticism he had suffered through his relationship with his mistress, the celebrated bel-canto soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who already had given birth to several illegitimate children. Verdi was stung by the judgmental malice directed at him and Strepponi. This brand of Victorian-era hypocrisy was rampant at the time. For many upper-middle-class men, having a mistress was considered a badge of honor, while women were expected to submit to a kind of societal straitjacket.
The depth of Verdi’s Violetta marked an impressive step forward for him as a musical dramatist. Unfortunately, the electrifying modern production he dreamed of was not to be. When Traviata bowed at La Fenice in 1853, its setting was pushed back to the early 1700s—a distancing effect aimed at pacifying the censors. The cast was inadequate, and as opening night approached, Verdi feared that the production would turn out to be exactly what he later described it as being, a “fiasco.” A little over a year later, it was given another production, properly cast, at Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto, that was a success, making the composer feel (mostly) redeemed.
When we experience Traviata in the theater now, it behooves us to try to imagine how shocking it must have been for audiences when it bowed at La Fenice in 1853. For Verdi to have imbued his “fallen woman” (the approximate English translation of the title) with so much dignity, grace, and compassion was something revolutionary in mid-19th-century Italian opera. Some commentators have criticized Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto for making too abrupt a jump from Act One to Act Two; having grappled with whether or not to take a chance on love in her magnificent Act One soliloquy, “È strano … ah! fors’è lui … sempre libera,” Violetta makes the decision to continue to seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
In the second act, we see that she has changed her mind and is living happily in the country with Alfredo. I think that it was a brilliant stroke on the part of Verdi and Piave not to have us witness any further indecision about pursuing a life with Alfredo. When Act Two begins, we are lulled into a false sense of security, which makes what comes next all the more powerful. Her subsequent confrontation with Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, in which he insists that she abandon Alfredo for the sake of the family honor, remains a formidable challenge for a good singing actress: she must persuade us, as well as Germont, that she possesses the most enlightened sensibility, the greatest sense of empathy, of any other character onstage. Soprano Diana Soviero, who sang hundreds of performances of Traviata, recalls the power of the Violetta-Germont scene. “Often, I would stare at him for longer than I normally would,” she says. “And on the ‘ah’ before ‘Dite all giovine’ I would start positive and then become negative, and bring the sound back to me. I was saying, ‘all right—tell your daughter who is so pure and beautiful that I will do this for her. Because she is the girl I want so badly to be.’”
Violetta puts herself to the ultimate test, and her reward is to die of tuberculosis. Germont grasps her true worth only when she is on her deathbed. Unlike Daisy Miller, who also dies, she doesn’t have the satisfaction of getting her own way—but I think that’s why the end of James’ novel always seems vaguely unsatisfying; the death of a girl who does precisely what she wants simply doesn’t have the emotional resonance that Violetta’s death does. Unfortunately, the ultimate message of Traviata still gets obscured on the stage, as some directors seek to make it more about a young woman who is dying, i.e., large ticking clocks onstage or, as in one production, changing Violetta’s illness to AIDS. In such cases, I cannot help but feel that the real dramatic truth of La Traviata has been sideswiped. Perhaps the idea of redemption doesn’t resonate with us as it did with Verdi’s audiences. But a great production of Traviata can still remind us of its power.