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Verdi La traviata 17, 19, 21 & 23 March 2023 Opera
Conductor Massimo Zanetti
Director Jean-Louis Grinda

Verdi La traviata

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Friday 17 March 2023 - 20 h (Gala)
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Thursday 23 March 2023 - 20 h
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Melodramma in three acts
Music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after The Lady of the Camellias (1852) by Alexandre Dumas fils, a play based on his novel of the same name 
Premiere: Venice, Teatro La Fenice, 6 March 1853

Production of the Monte Carlo Opera, in co-production with the Opéra-Théâtre de Saint-Étienne

This first season of the Monte Carlo Opera under its new director will see the return of Jean-Louis Grinda’s production of La traviata created in 2013. A symbol of a harmonious handover of power and a sign of true understanding, these performances will also be an opportunity to celebrate the return of Plácido Domingo to a stage he last walked on as a singer in 1996. Alongside him, the wonderful Aida Garifullina will offer her touching portrayal of Verdi and Dumas’ heroine, and Javier Camarena will make a much-anticipated debut as Alfredo.

As Charles Dickens remarked when he visited Paris in 1847 at the time of the death of Marie Duplessis –known to posterity as the Lady of the Camellias– the whole city stood still, transfixed by the romantic death of its most famous demi-mondaine. Thanks to Alexandre Dumas fils, who had his own very personal reasons for dwelling on this tragic fate, and to Giuseppe Verdi, it can be said that two 19th century geniuses gave the beautiful and sensitive Marie a true immortality.

Videos

3 ©OMC - Cassette Vidéo
Production team
Conductor | Massimo Zanetti
Director | Jean-Louis Grinda
Sets | Rudy Sabounghi
Costumes design | Jorge Jara
Lighting design | Laurent Castaingt
Choreography | Eugénie Andrin
Assistant director | Vanessa d'Ayral de Sérignac
Répétiteur | Kira Parfeevets
Cast
Violetta Valéry | Aida Garifullina
Flora Bervoix | Loriana Castellano
Annina | Federica Sardella
Alfredo Germont | Javier Camarena
Giorgio Germont | Massimo Cavalletti
Gastone | Alejandro Del Angel
Le Baron Douphol | Roberto Accurso
Marchese d’Obigny | Fabrice Alibert
Dottor Grenvil | Alessandro Spina
Giuseppe | Vincenzo di Nocera
A servant | Przemyslaw Baranek
A commissioner | Paolo Marchini
MONTE CARLO OPERA CHOIR

MONTE CARLO PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Artists' biographies
Artistic and technical teams

LES MAÎTRES D’ŒUVRE

Direction musicale
Massimo Zanetti

Mise en scène
Jean-Louis Grinda

Décors
Rudy Sabounghi

Costumes
Jorge Jara

Lumières
Laurent Castaingt

Chorégraphie
Eugénie Andrin

Chef de chœur
Stefano Visconti

Chef de chant
Kira Parfeevets

Assistant à la mise en scène
Vanessa d'Ayral de Sérignac

SOLISTES

Violetta Valéry
Aida Garifullina

Flora Bervoix
Loriana Castellano

Annina
Federica Sardella

Alfredo Germont
Javier Camarena

Giorgio Germont
Massimo Cavalletti

Gastone
Alejandro Del Angel

Le Baron Douphol
Roberto Accurso

Le Marquis D'Obigny
Fabrice Alibert

Le Docteur Grenvil
Alessandro Spina

Giuseppe
Vincenzo di Nocera

Un domestique
Przemyslaw Baranek

Un commissaire
Paolo Marchini

FIGURANTS
Ludivine Colle Denane
Barbara Franch
Emma Terno

DANSEUSE
Eugénie Andrin

DANSEURS
Jean-François Bizieau
Gleb Lyamenkov
Camille Masia
Swan Reault
Carlo Schiavo

CHŒUR DE L’OPÉRA DE MONTE-CARLO

Chef de chœur
Stefano Visconti

Consultant pour l’organisation musicale & assistant chef de chœur
Aurelio Scotto

Régisseuse du chœur & bibliothécaire
Colette Audat

Sopranos I
Galia BAKALOV
Antonella CESARIO
Chiara IAIA
Giovanna MINNITI
Felicity MURPHY
Paola VIARA-VALLE

Sopranos II
Rossella ANTONACCI
Marialucia CARUSO
Valérie MARRET
Letizia PIANIGIANI
Laura Maria ROMO CONTRERAS

Mezzo-sopranos
Teresa BRAMWELL-DAVIES
Géraldine MELAC
Suma MELLANO
Federica SPATOLA

Altos
Maria-Elisabetta DE GIORGI
Catia PIZZI
Janeta SAPOUNDJIEVA
Paola SCALTRITI
Rosa TORTORA

Ténors I
Walter BARBARIA
Lorenzo CALTAGIRONE
Domenico CAPPUCCIO
Vincenzo DI NOCERA
Thierry DIMEO
Nicolo LA FARCIOLA

Ténors II
Gianni COSSU
Pasquale FERRARO
Fabio MARZI
Adolfo SCOTTO DI LUZIO
Salvatore TAIELLO

Barytons
Fabio BONAVITA
Vincenzo CRISTOFOLI
Daniele DEL BUE
Luca VIANELLO

Basses
Andrea ALBERTOLLI
Przemyslaw BARANEK
Paolo MARCHINI
Edgardo RINALDI
Matthew THISTLETON

ORCHESTRE PHILHARMONIQUE DE MONTE-CARLO

Directeur artistique et musical
KAZUKI YAMADA

Premiers violons
DAVID LEFÈVRE
LIZA KEROB
SIBYLLE DUCHESNE 
ILYOUNG CHAE
DIANA MYKHALEVYCH
NICOLE CURAU DUPUIS 
GABRIEL MILITO
SORIN TURC
MITCHELL HUANG 
THIERRY BAUTZ
ZHANG ZHANG
ISABELLE JOSSO
MORGAN BODINAUD 
MILENA LEGOURSKA
JAE-EUN LEE
ADELA URCAN

Seconds violons
PÉTER SZÜTS
NICOLAS DELCLAUD 
CAMILLE AMERIGUIAN-MUSCO
FRÉDÉRIC GHEORGHIU 
NICOLAS SLUSZNIS 
ALEXANDRE GUERCHOVITCH
GIAN BATTISTA ERMACORA 
LAETITIA ABRAHAM 
KATALIN SZÜTS-LUKÁCS 
ERIC THOREUX
RALUCA HOOD-MARINESCU 
ANDRIY OSTAPCHUK
Sofija Radic
hubert touzery

Altos
FRANÇOIS MÉREAUX 
FEDERICO ANDRES HOOD 
FRANÇOIS DUCHESNE 
CHARLES LOCKIE 
RICHARD CHAUVEL 
MIREILLE WOJCIECHOWSKI
SOFIA TIMOFEEVA 
TRISTAN DELY
RAPHAËL CHAZAL
YING XIONG
THOMAS BOUZY 
RUGGERO MASTROLORENZI

Violoncelles
THIERRY AMADI 
DELPHINE PERRONE 
ALEXANDRE FOUGEROUX 
FLORENCE RIQUET 
BRUNO POSADAS 
THOMAS DUCLOY 
PATRICK BAUTZ 
FLORENCE LEBLOND 
THIBAULT LEROY 
CAROLINE ROELAND

Contrebasses
MATIAS BENSMANA 
TARIK BAHOUS
THIERRY VERA
MARIANA VOUYTCHEVA 
JENNY BOULANGER 
SYLVAIN RASTOUL
ÉRIC CHAPELLE
DORIAN MARCEL

Flûtes
ANNE MAUGUE 
RAPHAËLLE TRUCHOT BARRAYA
DELPHINE HUEBER

Piccolo
MALCY GOUGET

Hautbois
MATTHIEU BLOCH
MATTHIEU PETITJEAN 
MARTIN LEFÈVRE

Cor anglais
JEAN-MARC JOURDIN

Clarinettes
MARIE-B. BARRIÈRE-BILOTE 
VÉRONIQUE AUDARD

Petite clarinette
DIANA SAMPAIO

Clarinette basse
PASCAL AGOGUÉ

Bassons
FRANCK LAVOGEZ 
ARTHUR MENRATH 
MICHEL MUGOT

Contrebasson 
FRÉDÉRIC CHASLINE

Cors
PATRICK PEIGNIER 
ANDREA CESARI 
DIDIER FAVRE 
BERTRAND RAQUET 
LAURENT BETH 
DAVID PAUVERT

Trompettes 
MATTHIAS PERSSON 
GÉRALD ROLLAND 
SAMUEL TUPIN 
RÉMY LABARTHE

Trombones
JEAN-YVES MONIER 
GILLES GONNEAU 
LUDOVIC MILHIET

Tuba
FLORIAN WIELGOSIK

Timbales
JULIEN BOURGEOIS

Percussions 
MATHIEU DRAUX
Antoine Lardeau 

Harpe
SOPHIA STECKELER 

PERSONNEL DE SCENE

Directeur de scène
Xavier Laforge

Régisseur principal
Elisabetta Acella

Régisseur de scène
Karine Ohanyan

Régisseur lumières
Ferxel Fourgon

Régisseur sur-titrage
Sarah Caussé

Directeur technique
Vincent Payen

Responsable du bureau d’études
Nicola Schmid

Chef machiniste
Carlos Grenier
Olivier Kinoo

Sous-chefs machinistes
Yann Moreau
Franck Satizelle

Peintre décorateur
Gérard Périchon

Techniciens de plateau
Tom Ayrault
Laurent Barcelo
Morgan Dubouil
Jean-François Faraut
Jean-Philippe Faraut
Schama Imbert
Frédéric Laugier
David M’Bappé
Khalid Negraoui
Thomas Negrevergne

Chef électricien
Benoît Vigan

Chef électricien adjoint
Gaël Le Maux

Techniciens lumière
Nicolas Alcaraz
Grégory Campanella
Thibault Dhennin
Felipe Manrique
Laurent Renaud

Pupitreurs
Dylan Castori
Grégory Masse

Responsable audio/vidéo
Benjamin Grunler

Chef accessoiriste
Audrey Moravec

Accessoiristes
Roland Biren
Heathcliff Bonnet
Franck Escobar

Chef costumière-habilleuse
Eliane Mezzanotte

Chef costumière-habilleuse adjointe
Emilie Bouneau

Sous-chef costumière-habilleuse adjointe
Stéphanie Putegnat

Habilleurs
Christian Calviera
Nadine Cimbolini
Edwige Galli
Julie Jacquet
Karinne Martin
Florence Rinaldino
Lauriane Senet
Véronique Tetu

Chef perruquière-maquilleuse
Déborah Nelson

Chef perruquière-maquilleuse adjointe
Alicia Bovis

Perruquiers
Jean-Pierre Gallina
Karl David Gianfreda
Corinne Paulé
Marilyn Rieul

Maquilleurs
Sophie Kilian
Rémy Rebaudo
Francine Richard

Responsable billetterie
Virginie Hautot

Responsable adjointe billetterie
Jenna Brethenoux

Service billetterie
Ophélie Balasse
Dima Khabout
Stéphanie Laurent

Synopsis

Synopsis

The action takes place in and around Paris circa 1850. Act I takes place in August, Act II in January, Act III in February

 

Act I

An elegant drawing room in a Paris mansion

The famous courtesan Violetta Valery is hosting a party to celebrate her recovery from illness. The guests are arriving, among them her lover Baron Douphol, as well as Marquis d’Obigny, Flora Bervoix and Viscount Gastone de Letorières. Gastone introduces Alfredo Germont to Violetta, telling her that he is an ardent admirer of hers and often enquired about her during her illness. Alfredo overhears this conversation and confirms what Gastone has said. Douphol is angered by this conversation, especially as Violetta had reproached him for being less assiduous than the handsome young stranger. When Gastone asks the Baron to raise a toast to Violetta he refuses and, instead, it is Alfredo who raises the toast (brindisi “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”). Violetta invites her guests into the adjoining room where music is being played. Suddenly feeling unwell she sits down and notices in a mirror how pale she is. Alfredo has stayed behind in the room with her. He is concerned and urges Violetta to give up her hectic lifestyle and allow him to look after her. She makes light of his proposal, even when he confesses that he has loved her from the very first day he saw her, a year earlier. Violetta tells him that she is incapable of loving anyone, but offers him her friendship (duetto “Un dì felice, eterea”). As Alfredo is leaving Violetta gives him a flower and invites him back the next day. Alfredo is overjoyed and leaves. The guests thank their hostess and also depart (chorus “Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora”). Alone now, Violetta is strangely and unusually troubled by Alfredo’s words (scena “È strano! è strano”). She wonders if Alfredo might be the man to win her heart (cantabile “Ah, fors’è lui”). But she quickly brushes aside this idea as just an illusion (tempo di mezzo “Follie… follie…”). She prefers to continue living a life of freedom and pleasure-seeking (cabaletta “Sempre libera”). Meanwhile, in the street below, Alfredo can be heard singing his love for her.

 

Act II

Scene 1
A country house outside Paris

Five months later. Violet has abandoned her life as a courtesan and is living with Alfredo in a country house outside Paris. Alfredo is very grateful for her sacrifice and sings his joy (scena “Lunge da lei”, cantabile “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”). When Annina, Violetta’s maid, returns from Paris he questions her until she finally reveals that her mistress has sold all her possessions to support their lifestyle (tempo di mezzo “Annina, donde vieni?”). Alfredo’s pride is hurt and, filled with remorse (cabaletta “Oh mio rimorso!”) he leaves for Paris to settle Violetta’s debts. Violetta is left alone. She receives an invitation to a party that evening given by Flora. Violetta’s servant, Giuseppe, announces a visitor: Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. He wants to put an end to their liaison as it brings dishonour to their family. He accuses her of ruining Alfredo with her luxury lifestyle. She shows him the documents which prove the opposite (scena e duetto “Madamigella Valery?”). He then tells her about Alfredo’s sister whose fiancé is threatening to break off their engagement because of Alfredo’s dissolute lifestyle (“Pura siccome un angelo”). Violetta defends herself vehemently, assuring him that her love for Alfredo is pure and selfless, that it will not last long as she is suffering from an incurable illness (“Non sapete quale affetto”). But Germont remains unmoved, cynically warning her that Alfredo will abandon her when her charms have faded, as their union has not been blessed by the sacred vows of marriage.

All hope lost, Violetta agrees to leave Alfredo. Realising her sincerity and the sacrifice she is making Germont comforts her (“Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura / Piangi, piangi, o misera”). Knowing that this decision will kill her, Violetta pleads with Germont to tell Alfredo the truth one day so that he will not curse her memory (cabaletta “Morrò!... la mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica”). Just as she is writing a farewell letter to Alfredo he suddenly enters. He is troubled by a very stern letter from his father announcing his visit. Struggling to control her emotions Violetta begs him to continue loving her as she loves him (“Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo”). Before leaving for Flora’s party she has the fateful letter delivered to Alfredo. Germont returns as Alfredo is opening the letter. Filled with despair he throws himself into his father’s arms. Germont tries to console him by reminding him of his home in Provence, which Alfredo had abandoned for Paris, causing much distress to his family (cantabile “Di Provenza il mar, il suol”). Convinced that the Baron is to blame for their break-up Alfredo’s sorrow turns into anger (tempo di mezzo “Mille serpi divoranno il petto”). Germont begs him to put this unhappy affair behind him and return home to his family (cabaletta “Copriam d’oblio il passato”). But upon discovering the invitation to Flora’s party, Alfredo rushes over there.

Scene 2
The ballroom in Flora’s palace

Wonderful music is being played. The latest gossip is on everyone’s lips: Violetta and Alfredo have separated. The gypsy entertainers arrive. They tell the guests’ fortunes and reconcile Flora and Marquis who were on bad terms (Gypsy chorus “Noi siamo zingarelle”). Gastone and the matadors join in the festivities (Gastone and the Matador chorus “Di Madride noi siam matadori / È Piquillo un bel gagliardo”). Alfredo suddenly appears, he is alone; he sits down at a gambling table. Violetta enters on the Baron’s arm. On seeing Alfredo, she regrets having come. Alfredo is winning at cards and muttering comments: “Unlucky in love, lucky at gambling!” He continues to win while making more cynical remarks. Everyone feels the tension rising and Violetta is on the verge of collapse. In a brief private conversation with Violetta he tries to win her back, but she claims that she loves Douphol. Alfredo then calls in all the guests and declares that they are witnesses to his intention to repay Violetta in full for all he has cost her. He hurls his winnings at her feet (“Ogni suo aver tal femmina”). Violetta faints. The guests are outraged by his behaviour, as is Germont who has just arrived. He rebukes his son in front of all the guests. Alfredo is seized with remorse. Germont would like to reveal Violetta’s sacrifice, but does not have the right. Violetta comes round and is comforted by the other guests, while the Baron vows to avenge her (largo concertato “Di sprezzo degno sè stesso”).

 

Act III

Violetta’s bedroom, in her Paris home

Violetta’s tuberculosis is worsening and she is dying. Her faithful maid Annina tries to relieve her mistress’s suffering with the help of Doctor Grenvil who has lost all hope of a recovery. Yet again Violetta reads Giorgio Germont’s letter thanking her for keeping her promise. He informs her that the duel has taken place (the Baron was only slightly wounded) and that he has told the truth to Alfredo who would like to visit her (“Teneste la promessa”). But Violetta’s hope is shortlived when she sees her emaciated face and realises that her end is near. She bids farewell to her memories and her dreams of happiness (“Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti”). Outside the Carnival is in full swing in readiness for the sacrifice of the fatted ox (baccanale “Largo al quadrupede”). Alfredo rushes in, imploring Violetta’s forgiveness. He promises to take her far away from Paris and that she will become well again (duetto “Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo”). But Violetta becomes weaker and Alfredo realises with horror the seriousness of her condition. It is now too late. Violetta revolts at dying so young, and Alfredo’s tears mingle with hers (“Gran Dio! morir sì giovine”). Germont enters with the doctor. He is overcome with remorse. In one final effort, before dying in his arms, Violetta makes Alfredo promise to begin a new life.

Claire Delamarche
Traduction Eileen McFadden ©Opéra de Monte-Carlo 2023

The premiere: from flop to triumph

In 1852, while working on Il trovatore for Rome, Verdi was in negotiations for a new opera with the directors of La Fenice in Venice, where Rigoletto had triumphed the previous year. The contract was signed on May 4th, but Verdi was slow in informing them of his chosen subject. For a long time he had been considering a play by Alexandre Dumas Fils, La Dame aux camélias – he had seen the premiere on 2nd February 1852 in Paris, at the Théâtre du Vaudeville: “a subject all set, and which would certainly be effective”, he promised La Fenice. But he abandoned the idea, as he had no guarantee that he would have a prima donna worthy of the role. Francesco Maria Piave, the librettist, continued scouting for subjects. In the autumn Verdi took the plunge. Composing La traviata proved to be a difficult task, interrupted by the premiere in Rome of Il trovatore (19th January 1853). Every day, his fears regarding the cast heightened, made worse by an anonymous letter received in Busetto. He made vain attempts to oppose giving the role of Violetta to Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, a fine virtuoso, but a poor actress. Shocked at the idea of performing an opera in contemporary costumes, the theatre directors also resituated the action from Louis-Philippe to Louis XIV, and publicly announced the date of the premiere: 6th March 1853: “The scene takes place in Paris and its surroundings, circa 1700.”

A recipe for disaster, and a disaster it was. Disconcerted by this opera, the baritone was clearly hostile. The tenor Gaziani lost his voice. The Salvini-Donatelli, who performed well in the first act, proved to be incapable of exhibiting tormented emotions in the following acts, and in the final scene this buxom woman, who was supposed to be dying of consumption, was greeted by general hilarity on the part of the audience.

Verdi took it all philosophically: “Yesterday, La traviata was a flop. Was it my fault or the singers’ fault? The future will judge.” The future came in the form of Antonio Gallo: on 6th May 1853, the director of the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice was brave enough to resuscitate – with a new cast - the unfortunate Traviata, whose resounding failure appeared to have condemned it to death. Despite the persistence of the Louis XIV costumes, it was a triumph. Verdi’s lapidary conclusion: “The work presented at the San Benedetto was the same as at La Fenice, except for some adjustments that I made myself. There, it was failure, here it is all the rage. Draw your own conclusions.” Overwhelmed in 1853 by the hordes of detractors, the Gazetta officiale di Venezia was jubilant: “He who in the past was considered wrong, is today right; and the critic can rejoice at not having howled with the wolves and to have had the courage of his opinions. […] He whose eyes remain dry (while listening to this work) does not have a human heart in his breast, he is of the race of rocks and pebbles.” Galvanized by several evenings of triumph at the San Benedetto, La traviata went on to conquer Italy (at times under the title of Violetta), and then Europe.  And, with it, the success we all know…

Claire Delamarche, translated by Mary McCabe © Opéra de Monte-Carlo 2023

The outcasts have their day with Verdi

That Verdi chose this contemporary subject is rather surprising. Like the hunchback Rigoletto or the gypsies Manrico and Azucena in Il trovatore, the courtesan Violetta Valéry (alias Marguerite Gautier, alias Marie Duplessis) is a social outcast. In their own way, the bandits Carlo Moor (I masnadieri) and Ernani, or the bastard child Raffaele, (Stiffelio) were also outcasts, as was the foreigner Alvaro in La forza del destino; but in the 1851-1853 trilogy, marginality becomes the key element of the drama.

Perhaps this sudden concurrence finds parallels with Verdi’s private life. Since 1848 he had been living with Giuseppina Strepponi, a famous soprano, the same soprano who, in 1839, when she was the mistress of the director of La Scala, had taken advantage of her liaison to stage Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, at the prestigious Milan theatre. The couple defied social mores by appearing together in public, and only married (in great secrecy) in 1859. Their witnesses were the coachman and the bell ringer.

In January 1853 Verdi responded to the nasty gossip in a long letter to Antonio Barezzi, his benefactor and the father of his first wife, Margherita, who had died thirteen years earlier: “I have nothing to hide. A woman is living with me; she is free, independent, and, like me, enjoys a solitary life, which protects her from being in want. Neither I, nor she, are accountable to anyone for our actions; besides, who knows anything about our relationship? Our affairs? Our ties? My rights over her, and her rights over me? Who knows if she is my wife? And, if this is the case, who knows the motives, or the purpose behind our decision to make this relationship public? Who knows if this is good or bad? […] In any event, this woman, in my house, deserves the same respect as I do. She is totally entitled to this respect, as much for her behaviour as her intellect, and for the special consideration due to those who are full of consideration for others.” Nevertheless, this fully asserted “illegitimacy” bothered Verdi more than he cared to admit. He did not present his companion to the high society in Milan, nor did she accompany him to the premieres of Il trovatore, Rigoletto or La traviata. On several occasions, when she did accompany him on visits to friends, it was under the veil of secrecy. On 3rd January 1853 Giuseppina complained that they lived together “a solitary, almost reckless, life”. The years 1851 to 1853 were a crisis period for the couple.  Germont’s appalling statement to Violetta in the second act of La traviata certainly resonated with special meaning in Strepponi’s ears: “One day, when time will have faded your charms, lassitude will soon appear. What will happen then? Think about it! The sweetest emotions will be of no comfort, as these ties will not have been blessed by heaven.” In light of his biography, the entire opera was for Verdi a vindication.

Whatever aspects of Verdi’s private life may have influenced his choice of La Dame aux camélias, it was mainly a response to stylistic imperatives. On 1st January 1853 Verdi wrote to the composer Cesare De Sanctis: “I wish for nothing more than to find a fine libretto (therefore, a good poet) […]; it is impossible, or almost impossible, that anyone else could imagine what I want: I want new, grand, lovely, varied, ardent subjects of the highest order, with new forms, etc. etc., that at the same time can be set to music […]. In Venice I’ll do La Dame aux camélias, that might perhaps be called Traviata. A contemporary subject.  Perhaps someone else would not have chosen it because of the costumes, or for a thousand other stupid considerations.  Everyone howled when I suggested including a hunchback. Well, I was happy to do Rigoletto, as well as Macbeth etc. etc. etc.” One of the novelties of La traviata is to use transparent preludes to open acts I and III, considered similar to those of Lohengrin, the sonorities of which Verdi (who until then had never heard a note of Wagner) would only discover in Boccanegra et Aida.

That same year the discussions with Antonio Somma regarding the libretto of King Lear (that in the end would never be set to music) show Verdi resolutely focused on a new style of opera. In Verdi’s production the contemporary subject is isolated, as with Stiffelio. After La traviata Verdi returned to historical subjects: Les Vêpres siciliennes, Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, Aida, Otello). Violetta Valéry, on the other hand, belongs to a long line of increasingly complex characters. The more unequivocal heroes of the first operas symbolize an emotion or distinct trait of character: desire for revenge, love, heroism, bravery. However, along the line drawn by Lady Macbeth, Luisa Miller and Stiffelio, these stereotypes become fractured. The 1851-1853 trilogy, with its deviant characters, goes a step further. Verdi needed to go through the phase of realism in order to access “real” characters. Having crossed this Rubicon with La traviata, he could then go on to “invent the real”, according to his expression in October 1876 in reference to King Lear, which he will never complete. The epitome of authenticity will be Shakespeare, and the heights of complexity will be reached with the characters of Otello and Falstaff.

Claire Delamarche, translated by Mary McCabe © Opéra de Monte-Carlo 2023

Setting emotions to music

La traviata still belongs to the category of number operas, which was the standard format in Italy up until the mid-19th century, resting on the Rossini model of the double aria, the base unit consisting of four parts: a scena in free verse, characterised by music changes (a legacy of the old recitative), followed by the first slow and lyric part of the aria (a cantabile highlighting the singer’s legato and timbre), a tempo di mezzo (a second section in free style, generated by a dramatic turn of events justifying the sudden change of tone by the soloist), and lastly the second brilliant and virtuoso part of the aria, the cabaletta. The arias of Alfredo (“De’ miei bollenti spiriti”) and Germont (“Di Provenza il mar, il suol”), in act II, adhere strictly to this format. As for the ensembles, concertante or not, they follow the traditional structure, fairly similar in this respect to that of the arias (tempo d’attacco, cantabile or largo concertato, tempo di mezzo, cabaletta or stretto). The finale of act II is one of the finest examples of concertante finales in Verdi’s work. And yet, if we look closer, this model fractures in several places: Verdi is beginning to feel too restricted. From now on, it is not the actions of his characters that will interest him, but their emotions. The Germonts, father and son, Giorgio and Alfredo, still belong to the race of active protagonists, largely following the old model. But Violetta can only submit to the tragic movement that Giorgio and Alfredo, in turn, have set in motion. Opposite them she is but reaction, and Verdi explores the meanders of her soul. To do this, he needs formal freedom. Indeed, how could the restrictive form of a two-part aria suffice to render the complexity of this constantly evolving character, plagued by conflicting thoughts? The boundaries disintegrate, therefore, between scena and aria, cantabile or cabaletta, to the advantage of more unorthodox structures and a more varied arias (at times almost declamatory), which at the time caused a scandal. Thus, the grand aria of the heroine, in act I, provides the first example in Verdi’s work (and probably in Italian opera) of a “self-generated” tempo di mezzo: the passage from the cantabile to the cabaletta is justified by Violetta’s psychological confusion, and no longer, as was previously the rule, by the sudden intervention of another character, creating a dramatic turn of events. Violetta has welcomed her guests and shared drinks with Alfredo in an atmosphere of general merriment – in the famous brindisi “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”. Left alone, she relives the young man’s declaration of undying love for her (scena “È strano…”), indulging in a dream of mutual love (cantabile “Ah fors’è lui”). In her exaltation she reiterates the literary and musical terms of Alfredo’s passionate declaration: “With that love which is the very breath of the universe itself – mysterious, noble, both cross and ecstasy of the heart.” (This key theme is repeated twice in act III, played each time by two solo violins, like a fragile memory: when Violetta takes Germont’s letter to read it, and at the moment of her last breath.) But doubt sets in: Violetta refuses to believe in such happiness and gives in to despair in the tempo di mezzo (“Follie… follie”), and makes the decision to continue with her present life, a joyous whirlwind (dazzling vocalises on the verb “gioir “, rejoice). She then gives free rein to her exhilaration, to a heady virtuosity that expresses her joy at returning to a life of freedom and pleasure (cabaletta “Sempre libera”).

A fourth, omnipresent, character arrives to interfere in this trio: the crowd. Following a procedure dear to him, Verdi plays on the contrasts between dazzling festivities and intimate scenes in order to accentuate the horror of the unfolding drama and the solitude of its protagonists. In the gripping finale of act II, the festivities at Flora’s house, matadors and bohemians fill the masked ball with colour, the guests’ laughter covers the whisperings: “Violetta and Germont have separated…” Convinced that Violetta has betrayed him, Alfredo humiliates her in front of the horrified mass of guests. The crowd telescopes the intimate. Germont, a spectator of the scene, refrains from intervening.

In the third act Violetta is dying. Only the servant Annina remains faithful. Yet the crowd does not release their prey. Violetta receives Germont’s letter of confession and gives in to her melancholy: the memories of past festivities return, in the form of a chaotic waltz drawn out to a 6/8 (“Addio, del passato”). At the height of Violetta’s impassioned cry, when she calls herself traviata (fallen woman), the oboe repeats it in a superb overlap (high A). No sooner have her memories vanished, the sounds of a bacchanal can be heard under Violetta’s window: it is the Carnival procession (the real Marie Duplessis also died on Carnival day in 1832). They are celebrating the sacrifice of the fattened ox. The symbol is clear: Violetta did not die of consumption, but of the unbearable weight of a society that sacrificed her on the altar of virtue. At this moment we remember the sinister matadors parading at Flora’s house, the arena where Alfredo, the defenceless arm of a morale that submerged him, put her to death. In vain, Germont and Alfredo rush to the dying Violetta’s bedside, they can no longer stop the infernal machine they have set in motion.

Claire Delamarche translated by Mary McCabe © Opéra de Monte-Carlo 2023