Mild 'La Traviata' was the scandal of its day

Linda of London

Seattle Opera presents La Traviata for the first time in 13 years. The company will present nine performances, with two spectacular casts, through Oct. 31.

Three works stand out as the masterpieces of Verdi's 'middle period': Rigoletto, Il Travatore, and La Traviata. Jester, troubadour, and courtesan-all three are assured of a permanent place in the operatic repertoire, but it is with his portrayal of the "woman who was led astray" that the great Italian master strikes the most sympathetic chord. The humanity of his heroine could well be due to the fact that the real life "Traviata" died only six years before becoming immortalized upon the operatic stage.

Rose Alphonsine Plessis was born a peasant girl in Nonannt in 1824. She went to Paris, changing her name to Marie Duplessis, to become the most celebrated and successful courtesan in sophisticated French society. Endowed with great beauty and wit, she had a succession of rich lovers, including the composer, Liszt. Amongst them was Alexandre Dumas, the son of the creator of The Count of Monte Cristo. At the age of 20, Dumas had a brief but passionate affair with her.

After a period of idyllic happiness it was brought to a close in August 1845, when he could no longer tolerate her infidelity with wealthier 'patrons'. However, his love for her endured and after her death from tuberculosis in 1847 when only 23, he poured out the story of their love in a grand romance La Dame aux Camelias. For the book Marie and Alexandre became Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval.

The novel was written in a frenzied three weeks and published in December of the same year. Its huge success brought him fame equal to his father's. Three years later he dramatized the tale (taking a mere eight days). The first performance finally taking place at the Vaudeville Theatre, Paris, on Feb. 2, 1852.

The play was attacked as being "a manifesto of a demimonde", and undermining the institution of marriage. Rapidly La Dame aux Camelias became the most successful play of the 19th Century, providing Sarah Bernhardt with her greatest role.

Verdi was in Paris during 1852, looking for a "simple, moving, and passionate plot to fulfill a commission from the Teatro la Fenice, Venice, for what would be his 17th opera. It is probable that he saw La Dame aux Camelias, for he asked Francesco Maria Piave for a libretto based on it. Piave supplied the texts for 10 of Verdi's operas, including Rigoletto and La Forza del Destino. Piave's book followed fairly closely the action of the play, which had a distinct parallel with Verdi's own life. The composer was at the time scandalizing the citizens of Busseto by living with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi.

The title was changed to La Traviata and the leading characters to Violetta Valery and Alfredo Germoni. Verdi was taking a courageous step for, although the opera now has all of the charm of a period piece, it was originally designed as a picture of contemporary life.

Nobody had ever appeared on the operatic stage in modern dress before, nor had any heroine been cast as a demimonde. The composer was boldly flouting all the conventions of the day.

Verdi worked at the score while supervising rehearsals for Il Travatore in Rome, and although the music did not come easily ("My notes are a penance," he wrote). It was completed in time for the premiere on March 6, 1853 - just six and a half weeks after Il Travatore's debut.

In order to soften the blow of the work's avant-garde novelty, the costumes and settings were Louis XIV period. Even so, the composer had strong misgivings that poor casting would ruin the production's chances.

These were more than justified because La Traviata was a resounding failure. The Violetta was Fanny Salvinni-Donatelli, a large and unattractive woman in all-too-obviously-robust health. She sang well enough, but the incongruity of her final scene, where she died of TB, added a touch of farce, which reduced the audience to helpless laughter. Added to this the tenor Lodovico Graziani was in very poor voice and the baritone Felice Varesi seemed totally disinterested. In a letter the following day, Verdi gave his laconic verdict: "La Traviata last night was a fiasco. Was the fault mine or the singers? Time will tell." Time did tell. The following year Verdi allowed a second production to be mounted in Venice. La Traviata triumphed at last, as she quickly proceeded to do in many subsequent performances throughout Italy and Europe. It was the most discussed opera of the day.

Similar success attended the London premiere in 1856 with Marietta Piccolomini giving a performance which according to Charley the caustic critic, "approached offence against maidenly reticence and delicacy." It was a smash hit. The controversy that raged over such "exhibitions of harlotry upon the public stage" undoubtedly helped to pack the house at every performance. La Traviata had become the symbol of revolt against the prevailing sexual conventions of Victorian England.

Seattle Opera's opening night will feature Nuccia Focile as the glamorous courtesan Violetta. Focile has appeared at Seattle Opera as Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme, Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and the title role in Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris. American tenor Dimitri Pittas makes his Seattle Opera debut as Violetta's true love, Alfredo. American baritone Charles Taylor, who made his Seattle Opera debut last season as Amonsaro in Verdi's Aida, sings the role of Germont.

The Sunday/Friday cast features Cuban soprano Eglise Gutierrez and Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the lovers. Gutierrez, who recently made a "sensational" Royal Opera Covent Garden debut in the title role of Donizzetti's Linda di Chaumonix, came first to Seattle Opera in 2008 as Elvira in Bellini's Puritani.

La Traviata is staged by director Mark Streshinsky and conducted by Maestro Brian Garman. The production features sets by John Conklin and lavish period costumes by David Walker, originally created for the San Francisco Opera. Connie Yun will design the lighting and Sara de Luis will choreograph the Spanish dance sequences in Act II.

La Traviata runs from Oct. 17 through Oct. 31. Single tickets range from $25 to $175 and are available on line at by calling 206-389-7676 or 800-426-1619 or by mobile phone at Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office by visiting 1020 John St. Monday to Friday between 9 and 5.

To quote Speight Jenkins, "It's going to be a great show. Don't miss it."

-TTFN till next time. Linda[[In-content Ad]]