LA TRAVIATA, BY GIUSEPPE VERDI

(Notes by Paul Zweifel)

 

George Bernard Shaw is responsible for defining the generic opera plot: "A tenor and soprano want to make love, but are
prevented from doing so by the baritone." If that plot doesn't fit all operas, it is certainly a perfect description of tonight's opera, La Traviata. The soprano is, of course, Violetta Valery, the reformed prostitute who is in love with the tenor, Alfredo Germont, while the baritone is Alfredo's father, Giorgio. Sometimes, in the interest of euphemism, Violetta is referred
to as a "courtesan" or even as a demi-mondaine (a French euphemism), but if Traviata were to be given a modern staging, she would properly be referred to as a "call girl." No wonder Giorgio is anxious to break up the illicit relationship between Violetta and his son. Although such relationships between rich Frenchmen and demi-mondaines were an accepted part of the mid-nineteenth century Parisian life-style, these affairs were supposed to be conducted with a modicum of discretion, not, as in the case of Alfredo and Violetta, in broad daylight!

Incidentally, the word traviata is variously translated in the operatic literature as "the wayward one" or "the straying one"; it is, after all, the past participle of the Italian verb traviare meaning "to go astray." As supertitlists, my wife Kathy and I had to grapple with the problem of translating this word, since it appears in Violetta's Act III aria Addio del passato--"Farewell to the past"--when she sings "Ah! della Traviata sorridi al desio," ecc. (note that Traviata is capitalized): Our translation runs "Oh smile on this sinner, dear Father, I pray." "Sinner" is, we think, the best translation to give the proper feeling for this tragic heroine.

In Act II of Traviata Germont pere insultingly accosts Violetta on the terrace of the country home which she and
Alfredo have been sharing for three months. (All English text is taken from Kathy's and my supertitles which you will be
seeing tonight.)

Germont:  I am father of that rash boy
you are leading to ruin.

Violetta's dignified demeanor in responding to Germont's insult makes him (literally) change his tune, and in a scene
which many consider to be musically the high point of the opera, he entreats Violetta to give up his son, for the sake
of his daughter, Alfredo's sister:

Violetta: Sir! I am a lady and this is my home!
Permit me to leave you for
both of our sakes...

and a little later:

My past no longer exists. Now
I love Alfredo, and God has
forgiven my sin.

Germont exclaims "What dignity!" and proceeds to play
on Violetta's nobility:

...The youth whom my daughter
loves dearly, and who loves
her so much in return,
Was disgusted by all of this
scandal, and has canceled
the marriage we learn.

Let me make a slight excursion from the main theme of tonight's colloquium to discuss this question of the
ubiquitous nobility of Verdi's heroines. In tonight's opera, Violetta nobly sacrifices her lover to ensure the happiness of a girl she has never met (and never will meet). Aida hides in the tomb where her lover, Radames is buried alive, in order to share his fate. Leonora, in Il Trovatore, first accedes to the Conte di Luna's immoral proposal in order to save the life of her lover, Manrico, and then commits suicidto prevent the Count from having his way with her. Similarly, Leonora, in La Forza del Destino, incarcerates herself in a hermit's cell to atone for the death of her father. Gilda, in Rigoletto, allows herself to be killed in the place of her worthless lover. And so on. (Lady Macbeth is an exception to Verdi's noble heroines, I must admit, but there we can blame Shakespeare.)

Whence all this nobility? We must understand that Verdi was a highly patriotic figure, who supported the Risorgimento in
Italy with all his heart, and further, with all his operatic works. His early operas were thinly-disguised stories of the
Italians' banding together to end foreign occupation--the most famous of these operas is Nabucco, ostensibly about the
Jews in captivity in Babylon, but really about the Italian in captivity in their homeland. The famous chorus from Nabucco, "Va pensiero", became, in fact, the anthem of the Risorgimento, the Italian patriots hearing in it their own emotions after failing for so long to end their captivity by the Austrians. Another early opera with similar themes is I Lombardi (describing a crusade. At one point the tenor cries "La Santa Terra oggi nostra sara'"-- The Holy Land shall be ours today" to which the chorus responds "Guerra, guerra!"--"War, war!"  (The Holy Land is, of course a symbol for Italy.) Even Macbeth has a chorus for Scottish exiles: "O patria oppressa"--"Oh, oppressed fatherland."

But even as Verdi became less explicit in his reference to the struggle of Italy to free itself from foreign domination his operas continued to be filled with the type of noble individual (symbolized by Hector in The Iliad ) characterize by selfless devotion to a cause. Thus, Violetta's noble accession to Germont's rather outrageous demands are a symbol of the self-sacrifice and devotion to the fatherland required of all Italians if their struggle against foreign domination is to succeed.

And how outrageous are Gorgio Germont's demands, really? Well, can there be any doubt that the marriage he is anxious
to see take place between his daughter and the youth she "loves dearly, and "who loves here so much in return" is a
marriage he has arranged for strictly financial reasons? I have no real evidence to support this theory, except to point out that in the 1840's love matches between children of upper-class families in France were virtually unknown. The strict chaperonage system of the time and the very young age at which girls married would see to that if nothing else did. So Germont, the heel (and, in opera, almost all baritones are heels anyway) appeals successfully to Violetta's noble spirit. (Germont actually repents in the final scene, when he arrives to find Violetta dying. "...remorse is consuming my soul," he intones sanctimoniously.)

Then how does Violetta, the call girl, develop the nobility to sacrifice herself for Giorgio Germont's schemes. First, her plaint:

This fallen woman, what hope
has she got? If God have
pity, man has not!

Then, continuing:

Then go and tell your
daughter, so beautiful
so pure...
Say that I died, a sacrifice
her happiness to ensure.

My contention is that, in a peculiar way, Violetta's sacrifice is motivated ultimately by her great love for Alfredo, and that her willingness to abandon him proves how completely, unconditionally she lives in her devotion to him. Because, you see, she comes to think of Germont not only as Alfredo's father but, actually, as her own father! By loving Alfredo's father, she is simply expressing her great love for Alfredo! And because she love's Alfredo's father in this way, she does what he asks.

Violetta, after all, has no family of her own:

Do you know how much I love him,
that I have no other kindred
or friend?

So by doing as Giorgio Germont asks, Violetta is carrying out a loving act for her own, now nonexistent father! It is an act of filial devotion, but at the same time an act of dedication to her lover, because it is his father she is honoring.

I must admit that in  La Dame aux Camelias, the novel by Aexandre Dumas, fils upon which the opera is (ultimately) based, Violetta herself ascribes her motives in acceding to Germont's request to nobility. She (Marguerite in the novel) writes to her lover Armand Duval describing the confrontation with his father : " The fatherly way in which M. Duval spoke, the pure feelings he aroused in me, the good opinion of this upright old man which I should acquire, and your esteem which I was certain I would have one day, all these things awoke noble thoughts in my heart which raised me in my own estimation and gave a voice to a kind of sacred self-respect which I had never felt before. When I thought that this old man, now begging me for his son's future, would some day tell his daughter to include my name in her prayers, I...looked upon myself with pride." So perhaps I am wrong about Violetta's motives after all.

And Verdi's operas are replete with descriptions of love between parents and their children. Most often, this takes the form of love of a father for a daughter (or vice versa) as in the case of Gilda and Rigoletto; Amonasro and Aida;    Ford and Nannetta (in Falstaff); with many other examples, including Simon Boccanegra, Aroldo, Luisa Miller. etc. But at times there is a transformation, and the relationship is between a mother and son (Azucena and Manrico in Il Trovatore) or father and son (Francesco and Jacopo in I Due Foscari ). An interesting exception is Otello. In  Shakespeare's play, the relationship between Desdemona and her father Brabantio is sketched out in the first act, omitted from the Verdi opera. It is in this first act that Shakespeare paints Iago as a villain, describing how he taunts Brabantio with the fact that Desdemona has married a Moor: ("I come to tell you that your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs." etc. etc.) Because this scene is missing in the opera, Iago's villainous, but otherwise irrelevant, aria "Credo" was introduced by Boito, Verdi's librettist, to delineate Iago's evil character.

So, getting back to Traviata, we find Violetta sacrificing her own, and Alfredo's, happiness as an expression of her own deep  love for Alfredo, sublimated to Alfredo's father. Think about this as you listen to that great scene, perhaps the most beautiful ever written by Verdi, which begins with Giorgio Germont's entrance in Act II: "Mademoiselle Valery" and climaxes finally as Violetta, leaving Alfredo, cries to him despairingly "Amami Alfredo!"--"Love me, Alfredo!"

Some other scenes of the opera are worth noting, even though they may not carry the emotional charge of the scene between Violetta and Germont already discussed. At the beginning of Act I, Violetta is throwing a party to celebrate her release from the hospital. (She has been treated for consumption--i.e., tuberculosis--although we don't learn the nature of her disease until the last act, from Dr. Grenvil:

Her consumption will take her
in a few hours.)

When Alfredo appears, he is persuaded to perform a drinking song for the assemblage. Now, this drinking song is called, for some unknown reason, a "Brindisi," after the seaport in southeastern Italy. The English equivalent might be a "Jacksonville," or, perhaps, a "Miami," but after serious debate, Kathy and I decided to leave the Italian word intact. In this Brindisi, first Alfredo, then Violetta and finally the guests (i.e., the chorus and the minor principals or comprimari, as they are called in Italian) express their hedonistic philosophy:

Alfredo: Let's drink to the
laughing wine cups...
Drink to the throbbing
sensations...
For these are hot
kisses of love.

Violetta: All that's not
pleasure is senseless...
...the joy of love
is so brief!

Towards the end of the first act, after a passionate love duet between Alfredo and Violetta:

Alfredo: ...From that love
throbbing within me...
Comes an overwhelming
sensation...
Mingling, incredibly
sorrow and joy...

Violetta: I can offer only
friendship...
I don't know
how to love.

Violetta soon changes her mind, however and invites Alfredo to return tomorrow ("Domani?" "Ebben...domani!")

One facet of the love duet is worth noting. Italian librettists never use a simple word, when an esoteric one is available. For example, you will rarely see "parole" ("words") in a libretto; the term "accenti" ("accents") is preferred. "Bells" become "sacred bronzes" and "church" becomes "temple." (The Italian word tempio means a Catholic church, unlike in English, where "temple" generally refers to a (reformed) Jewish house of worship, for which the Italian word is sinagoga.) In the love duet, when Alfredo speaks of "sorrow and joy" the Italian is "croce e delizia" i.e. "cross and delight" ("cross" as in the sense of being crucified). This poses a dilemma for the translator, who is accused of being ostentatious if she mimics the fancy language of the libretto, and of being inaccurate if he doesn't!

The act closes with Violetta's great aria, Ah, fors e' lui and the cabaletta Sempre libera.

Is he the one
who in my dreams...
...brought peace so
often to my heart...
..painting it with
magic colors?

But she quickly changes her mind again, beginning the recitative between the aria and the cabaletta with the words "This is insane, a mad delusion," and then, in the cabaletta singing:

Let me be free...
I want nothing
but pleasure from life.

At this point, a typical Verdi device appears, namely the offstage voice, as Violetta hears Alfredo singing, in the distance, the refrain from the love duet which she herself has just repeated in her aria..."From that love, throbbing etc." The voice is so faint that one suspects that Verdi intended us to perceive it as coming not from Alfredo, but rather from Violetta's unconscious mind.

One other Verdi device should be noted. In the last act, as Violetta is dying in her sickroom, we hear, outside, a chorus of revelers celebrating Mardi Gras. "Hail to the quadruped..." (another example of fancy language, incidentally. They are actually preparing to roast an ox to celebrate Mardi Gras.) This conjunction of pleasure and pain occurs frequently in Verdi's operas, the celebratory aspects of the scene being used to heighten the pathos of the tragedy. A little later we have an example of what technically is called "melodrama" as Violetta speaks (rather than singing) the words of Germont's letter "You have kept your promise..." This device, popular in earlier opera, particularly in Germany, was used only rarely by Verdi.