La traviata

The characters

Violetta

Violetta

Violetta Valéry (Soprano)

  • Impulsive
  • Passionate
  • Pragmatic

Violetta is the musical and emotional heart of La traviata. Rarely absent from the stage, she dominates a drama in which men come and go. Vocally this is one of the more demanding soprano roles, requiring a very specific voice type capable of producing the music’s agile, high-lying runs, but also its raw power.

The character of Violetta is based on real-life Parisian society courtesan Marie Duplessis, who died of tuberculosis aged 23 just five years before the opera was premiered.

Literally translated the opera’s title means 'The woman led astray', placing the responsibility for the tragedy not on courtesan Violetta, but the cynical society that has brought about her downfall.

Alfredo

Alfredo

Alfredo Germont (Tenor)

  • Romantic
  • Innocent
  • Quick-tempered

Countryboy Alfredo stands apart from the opera’s fashionable city crowd, lacking their superficial polish and confidence. But his country manners come with an emotional directness and sincerity that brings out a new side to his beloved Violetta.

A typical romantic lead, Alfredo is sung by a tenor, whose higher, more lyrical voice stands in contrast to the gruffer, more world-weary baritone of his father, and mirrors his innocent optimism.

Giorgio

Giorgio

Giorgio Germont (Baritone)

  • Conservative
  • Manipulative
  • Warm-hearted

Alfredo’s father is an old-fashioned character, for whom morality and public perception are all important. His disapproval of courtesan Violetta and his son’s dissolute life in Paris reflects the prejudices of Verdi’s own age.

Germont as close as La traviata gets to a villain. But this complicated character, who just wants the best for his family, is far more interesting than a straightforward bad guy. He may persuade Violetta to leave Alfredo, but later sees the error of his ways.

The story

Act I

A parisian party

Society courtesan Violetta Valéry is hosting a party. Among the guests is a young stranger, Alfredo Germont, who has long adored Violetta from afar. He gives a toast – a rousing drinking song. The guests move into another room, leaving Violetta alone. Overcome with a fainting fit she begs them to leave her to rest.

An unexpected encounter

Violetta is suddenly aware that Alfredo has stayed behind with her. He warns that her hedonistic lifestyle will kill her, and tells her that if he were her lover that he would protect her. Violetta laughs off his passionate declarations; she can only offer her friendship. But as he leaves she offers him a flower, making him promise to bring it back the next day. The guests say their goodbyes. Much struck by Alfredo’s words, Violetta expresses her longing to love and be loved – something she has never experienced. But quickly she dismisses the thought. She must be free to enjoy herself.

Act II

The not-so-simple life

Violetta and Alfredo have left Paris for countryside. But their happiness is short-lived. Violetta’s maid Anina enters, revealing that she is going to sell her mistress’s jewels and carriage to help pay for their lifestyle. Alfredo is ashamed, and vows to make amends.

Violetta is alone when Alfredo’s father, Germont, arrives unexpectedly. He asks her to leave his son, to spare him the shame of an alliance with a courtesan. He tells her of his younger daughter whose fiancé would end their engagement if Violetta does not. She yields, asking only that, one day, Germont tells his son of her sacrifice.

Violetta writes two letters: one to her former lover, Baron Douphol, another to Alfredo. Just as she is finishing he arrives, and she begs him to love her.

Alfredo is now alone. A servant enters with a letter from Violetta; she has returned to her old life in Paris. His father enters to comfort him, but Alfredo will not be swayed and departs for Paris.

Flora’s party

Alfredo arrives at Flora’s party and heads straight to the card table. When Violetta enters with the Baron the tension rises. Douphol challenges Alfredo to a card game, but Alfredo wins.

 

Violetta asks Alfredo to leave the party to avoid a quarrel. When she tells him (untruthfully) that she loves Douphol he becomes angry. He hurls his winnings at her as repayment for his debt. Horrified, she sinks to the ground in a faint just as Alfredo’s horrified father enters.

Act III

The beginning of the end

Dying of consumption, Violetta is alone with her faithful maid Anina. The doctor tries to comfort her, but confesses privately to Anina that she only has hours to live. Violetta reads a letter from Germont. He tells her that Alfredo and the Baron fought a duel, but both survived. Alfredo now knows of her sacrifice and is coming to ask her forgiveness. She knows it is too late for happiness, and wistfully bids farewell to her hopes.

Alfredo returns

Alfredo arrives and begs for forgiveness. Caught in the moment, the lovers forget themselves and plan a happy future together. But when Violetta tries to get up she collapses. Horrified, Alfredo sends Anina for the doctor. He arrives with Germont. Alfredo embraces Violetta, begging her not to die. She recovers briefly, filled with new energy. But her strength is short-lived, and she suddenly collapses and dies.

The music

The work’s risqué subject matter was long a topic of concern, its corruptions amplified by the lyrical score. A 19th century musicologist, wrote: ‘Verdi was unable to resist the temptation of setting to music, and so making more attractive and acceptable, a filthy and immoral subject’.

The Prelude to La traviata isn’t just a curtain-raiser, but an essential part of the dramatic fabric of the work – the opera in musical microcosm. It tells the story we are about to hear in reverse order, moving from the fragile music of Violetta’s deathbed, to the glittering Act I music. This foreshadowing makes the heroine’s journey that much more poignant.

Verdi inherited a style of opera from his predecessors built around arias structured in two section: slow-fast. While there are examples in La traviata (most famously Violetta’s ‘Ah, fors'è lui…Sempre libera’), more often Verdi avoids this predictable structure in favour of more organic, fluid music such as Violetta’s Act I conversation with Alfredo and her Act II encounter with Germont.

The duality of Violetta as a heroine – the fallen woman with pure intentions – is captured in music that covers a wider range of emotion and style than almost any other Verdi character. Her move from defiant brilliance (‘Sempre Libera’) to generous dignity (‘Dite alle giovine’) to broken fragility ('Addio, del passato’) is painted in music that captures every conflict and shift of emotion.

Musical highlights

'Brindisi'

Alfredo’s bubbling Brindisi (drinking song) is effervescent as a glass of champagne. Musically it’s the symbol of the opera’s good times, the joyous hedonism of Act I. 

The tone for this energetic, infectious drinking song is set by the repeated use of a wide, rising interval. These leaps are not only memorable but suggest youth, passion and excess. This impression is heightened by the ornamentation – the little turns and grace-notes that decorate the vocal line – which give it a throwaway brilliance and a feel of bubbling joy.

The lilting waltz rhythm and strumming orchestral chords give the song its lively, extrovert character, which contrasts with the stiff, stilted waltz at the close of Act II that reflects the new tension between Violetta and Alfredo.

Although the aria’s songlike melody has the character and feel of a popular song, the melody is, in fact, Verdi’s own – inspired by, rather than directly borrowed from, the many similar drinking songs of his day.

'Addio del passato'

Violetta’s Act III aria returns to the waltz rhythm of the opening. Her words renounce her youthful dreams of love and accept her approaching death, but the music tells a different story, harking back to the dances and festivity of Act I. 

This aria feels fragmented and choppy, as though the consumptive heroine cannot muster strength and breath enough to sustain longer expression. The repetition built into the melody also hints at a woman returning insistently to an idea she cannot (or is not willing to) relinquish.

The awkward rhythmic stresses of this aria (which don’t always fall on the expected beat of the bar) transform a dance into a stumbling, lurching affair – a dance still, but this time a dance of death. A solo oboe echoes and supports the voice throughout the aria – perhaps representing Violetta’s musical soul, already separate from the body she leaves behind.

Recommended links

More photos from La traviata in Festival 2014

La traviata (Glyndebourne 1988) on DVD

La traviata (Glyndebourne 2014) on DVD and Blu-ray

Watch more clips of La traviata 

Visit the Glyndebourne Archive

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