By Alan Schuster
Not only is “La Traviata” considered the perfect romantic melodrama, it also was unique to early audiences in that it was the first serious opera ever written for contemporary times. In later years, Puccini adopted this “verismo” (realism) style to his three greatest works, “Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “Boheme.”
When Verdi’s classic reached London in the 1850s, its huge success was such that “The London Times” wrote: “Once more frantic crowds struggled in the lobbies of the theatre; once more dresses were torn and hats crushed; once more a mania possessed the public.” For Wednesday’s HD performance, casual attire is recommended.
ACT I: A home in Paris. Violetta, a courtesan, is entertaining guests, among them an admirer named Alfredo Germont. Although she is very ill, Violetta insists upon leading a hectic social life. During a dance, she is seized by a coughing fit and has to withdraw. Alfredo joins her and professes his love. Violetta gently discourages his affection, but gives him a camellia flower, telling him to return when it has faded. Alone, Violetta wonders if Alfredo is her true love, but then shrugs off such sentiment, resigning herself to the hollow pleasures of life as her only option.
Highlights: Prelude: Two themes are revealed in this beautiful adagio movement. Alfredo sings “Libiamo…” (Drink … and be filled with love’s delight). This is a rare moment of gaiety at the party. Alfredo makes a lively toast to life and love, and Violetta responds in kind. Violetta: “Ah, fors’ e lui” (Was this the man…), beginning a coloratura marvel as she engages in three distinctive emotional expressions; contemplating the mystery of love; the fear of deceiving herself; and finally a burst of high-flying agility, “Sempre libera” (Ever free…) as she confirms her life of carefree pleasure. It’s a beautifully challenging set-piece.
ACT II: Scene 1: A country home near Paris. Violetta and Alfredo are now living together. When Alfredo learns that Violetta has sold her possessions to pay their debts, he leaves for Paris to raise the necessary money. Violetta receives an unexpected call from his father, Giorgio Germont, who urges her to end the relationship, which threatens his family’s reputation. Violetta is heartbroken, but finally agrees. Germont withdraws to a garden, and Violetta writes a note to Alfredo. Returning from Paris, Alfredo appears, only to have her bid him farewell and then promptly rush away. When a servant gives him her note, Alfredo is devastated. Germont enters and tries to console him, but Alfredo thinks that Violetta has betrayed him,and he rushes off to Paris — again.
ACT II, Scene 2: The home of Violetta’s friend, Flora, in Paris. A party is in progress. Alfredo appears alone, and then Violetta enters escorted by Baron Douphol. The two men play cards and Alfredo wins. Violetta approaches Alfredo and begs him to avoid trouble. In response to his scorn, she falsely declares that she loves the Baron. Furious, Alfredo, in front of the guests, flings his winnings in her face. The Baron challenges him, and Germont enters in time to witness his son’s outburst and reproaches him.
Highlights: Alfredo: “De’miei bollenti spiriti” (My youthful passion), a graceful lyrical aria. Next, Germont and Violetta in maybe the finest baritone/soprano duet in all of opera. Germont: “Pura siccome un angelo” (A pure angelic daughter); then Violetta: “Ah! Dite alla giovine.” (Tell your fair daughter…). First, he demands that she end her relationship with Alfredo; she responds that she will do so. Magnificently moving.
ACT III: Violetta’s bedroom, a few months later. The doctor tells her maid, Annina, that her mistress is dying. Violetta reads a letter from Alfredo’s father, telling her that his son now knows of her sacrifice and is returning to ask her forgiveness. As the lovers are reunited, Germont arrives to give his blessing. But it’s too late, and Violetta dies in Alfredo’s arms.
Highlights: The entire act! Beginning with the prelude, which is often considered Verdi’s best orchestral piece in his entire repertoire. Violetta: “Teneste la promessa” (You kept your promise…). She reads, not sings, Germont’s letter in an unusual example of theatrical sensitivity accompanied only by two violins. It’s a brief, yet extraordinary moment, leading directly to a nostalgic aria, “Addio del passato” (Farewell happy dreams). She recalls her happy times with Alfredo, then implores God to forgive the wanton desires of a “traviata” — a fallen woman.
Alfredo, Violetta: “Parigi, o cara…” (To Paris, dearest…). Five minutes of a pure and gentle duet, expressing their mutual love. Violetta: “Ah! Gran Dio!”: Almost defying death, she finds strength in her final moments, urging Alfredo to find happiness with another woman, “Una pudica vergine…” (Some day a pure maiden…). Then, to the soft accompaniment of the orchestra’s love-theme, she cries “Oh gioia” and falls lifeless into Alfredo’s arms.
“In La Traviata, Verdi has lifted Alexandre Dumas’s play “La Dame aux Camelias” into the realm of art,” according to Marcel Proust.
The wonderful French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, having a confidently upper register, is perfectly cast as Violetta. She’s joined by tenor Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo) and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the elder Germont.
All tickets are $15; no reserved seating. Box office opens at the USCB Center for the Arts at noon; curtain time 1 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31. For more information, call 521-4145.