The opera

Old fashioned music

Traviata is famous for being the quietest, most conversational opera Verdi ever wrote. Arias, duets, and dialogue flow into each other in a way that was quite new to his music. However Verdi never gave up some old fashioned ways of writing, particularly the cavatina.

Cavatinas are songs in two parts, and very easy to spot. The first part is slow, thoughtful, and always interrupted. The interruption may be a messenger, or a voice offstage, even a cannon shot, whatever it is it wakes up the singer who swings into the fast, brilliant second part, the cabaletta. This is specially designed to show off the singer’s voice and, if they pull it off, they exit to a storm of applause.

Fashionable frocks

La traviata was originally set in the middle of the 19th century, but it’s not always necessary to keep a show in its original setting. The director of the Glyndebourne production (Tom Cairns) thought the mixture of parties, champagne, terminal illness, and rich young men (with their escorts) could happen anywhere and he and the costume designer (Hildegard Bechtler) have set the show in modern times. You’ll probably recognise the celebrity style – it’s like the people you see in Hello magazine sharp suits, cocktail dresses – the characters are obviously dead rich…

The Story

The opera starts with some long quiet notes on the first violins. Its extremely difficult to play straight off , and even more difficult in the Glyndebourne production as the show starts in total darkness. The players have to have their fingers in position before the show starts.

The 1st and 2nd violins play a quiet melody that describes the Violetta’s melancholy private character, and then give way to a soft um cha cha as another melody takes over to describe her public face, glamorous, charming, and slightly feverish.

Watch the prelude to La traviata

Prelude to La Traviata from James Hancox on Vimeo.

Violetta’s Party

The quiet mood of the Prelude is swept away as the curtain goes up. A stage band crashes into an opening number, and we’re in the middle of a party.

Violetta greets her guests, and talks to Gaston, a young man who’s just arrived with a shy friend. (The dialogue goes as fast as real conversation but it’s screened above the stage in an English translation.)

Enter Alfredo

Violetta has been ill and she hears that Alfredo has called at her house every day to ask after her. Her current lover, the Baron, takes an instant dislike to him, but Violetta offers Alfredo some champagne and asks him to sing them a brindisi, a drinking song.

Watch Alfredo’s brindisi

Alfredo immediately agrees, Violetta picks up the tune – and suddenly faints.

A dance band strikes up offstage and the guests rush off to dance in another room. Only Alfredo remains behind.

Violetta is startled to see him there and asks if he really did turn up every day to ask after her. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I love you’. Violetta doesn’t want to hear this, her life is quite difficult enough without young men thinking they are in love with her. They begin to sing together, but their duet is at cross purposes: Alfredo sings steadily of his love, while Violetta stops her ears and sings a light hearted tune to the words, “This is all much too serious, friendship is all I offer…” Even so, as the duet finishes, you’ll notice that Violetta has joined Alfredo in his tune.

She is more affected by the young man than she realises and gives him one of her camellias. Alfredo is ecstatic and leaves with the other guests.

Violetta Alone

Left alone Violetta suffers a reaction. She starts the first part of a cavatina as she muses on the young man’s love and wonders for a moment if she should return it.

But she shakes off the idea – there is no true love in Paris, all she can hope to live for is enjoyment. She fills up another champagne glass and swings into a show stopping cabaletta, ‘Give me freedom!”

Listen to Violetta’s scene at the end of Act1 of La traviata

There is something feverish about the gaiety of this piece, and Violetta is devastated when she hears Alfredo interrupting it, as he sings to her from the street. She manages to finish in fine style but, as the curtain comes down, we can hear Alfredo’s music winning the day.

Love and Money

Sure enough, as the curtain goes up on Act Two we find ourselves in Violetta’s house in the country. Three months have passed and Alfredo enters to tell us, in another cavatina, how happy he is. He is interrupted by Violetta’s maid, Annina, who is on her way to Paris. Alfredo asks her errand, and is horrified to discover that she has been sent to sell up all Violetta’s possessions – the life they have been leading in the country has been eating away at her money.

This is an important moment as it shows that Violetta really does love Alfredo and will not let him pay for her. Alfredo is so immature that he hasn’t thought to ask where the money is coming from. Now however he knows, and he sings a cabaletta full of remorse for his thoughtlessness. He decides to dash up to town as well and sell all his property. This useful decision gets rid of him for a while and clears the stage for the greatest scene in the opera, Violetta’s confrontation with his father, Giorgio Germont.

A Visitor

Violetta enters, laughing over an invitation to a party from her friend Flora. She has no intention of accepting it and tears it in half as she throws it on to the coffee table. (Keep an eye on this invitation though, it’s going to be very important at the end of the scene.) A servant enters to say a gentleman has called. “Oh, yes,” says Violetta, thinking of her property, “that’s my lawyer, let him in…” But in comes Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.

Their conversation starts badly. Germont marches in, glares round the room and demands to know who is footing the bill. “Sir,” says Violetta, “you are addressing a lady, and this is my house…” Germont doesn’t quite know what to do about this – Violetta is obviously not the floozy he had thought her – he tries again and tells her that his son is about to give away his fortune. “I would refuse it, “ says Violetta.

A Request

The two of them look at each other, then the real conversation begins. Germont tells Violetta he has come to plead for both his children. He describes his daughter, young, beautiful, about to be married, and now threatened by the scandal of her brother’s affair. Violetta is touched by the picture of the innocent girl she can never be, and says, yes, she understands, she will leave Alfredo until Mademoiselle Germont is safely married. But Germont wants more. With rising horror, Violetta realises he is asking her to leave Alfredo for ever.

Her music becomes panic stricken as she tries to get Germont to understand. Doesn’t he know that she is dying? They have so little time left, she can’t give Alfredo up.

Listen to Violetta’s plea to Germont

Her music becomes panic stricken as she tries to get Germont to understand. Doesn’t he know that she is dying? They have so little time left, she can’t give Alfredo up.

This is one of the key moments of the opera. Both Germont and Violetta are Catholic and believe that real love can only last if it is channelled into marriage. In marriage a couple’s affection is blessed by God, whereas, outside marriage, their love will only last a couple of years. Very gently Germont points out what seems to him to be an obvious truth, and adds that, as her love is already doomed, would she give mind giving it up now, rather than wait for Alfredo to get tired of her? They may yet be in time to save his daughter’s wedding.

Violetta gives in

Violetta listens to Germont in despair. In her heart of hearts she agrees with him and, though she knows that God may forgive her, Society will not. You will hear her sing ‘E vero!’ (‘It’s true!’) and from that moment, her affair with Alfredo is over.

She agrees to leave Alfredo, and derives a crumb of comfort from the thought that she has helped an innocent girl, “Go and tell your daughter, “ she tells Germont, “that a woman she never knew has given up her happiness for her.”

Germont is deeply moved and Violetta begs him to embrace her as his daughter. She tells him to wait in the garden while she writes Alfredo a letter. She refuses to tell him her future plans (they are of course to return to her former life) and the pair part with mutual respect and affection.

Letters and Invites

Violetta writes first to the Baron, to say she is coming back. She gives this letter to Annina (who is horrified when she sees the address). Then she writes a farewell letter to Alfredo and is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the young man himself. She clutches him hysterically, begs him to say he will love her for ever, and runs out of the room, taking the letter with her.

A couple of minutes later a servant arrives, Violetta has gone to town and sent Alfredo a letter. One look at it and Alfredo knows his life is in ruins.

He cries with horror, and turns to find his father in the room. Germont tries to comfort him by reminding him of his family in Provence, in one of the best tunes Verdi ever wrote for the baritone voice.

Not surprisingly, Alfredo is not in the mood for this and roams the room in tears. He comes across Flora’s torn invitation, immediately assumes that Violetta has gone to her party, and rushes out of the room. The curtain falls with Germont stooping, to pick up the card and discover where on earth his son has gone.

At Flora’s

Act Three lands us straight in another party, quite different from Violetta’s. The hostess, Flora, is more flamboyant, there are gaming tables and her guests arrive dressed as bull fighters and gypsies.

The news of Violetta and Alfredo’s separation is already common knowledge, and when Alfredo arrives by himself, the men slap him on the back and take him off to play cards. Violetta enters with the Baron and is taken on one side by Flora.

The Baron settles down to gamble with Alfredo, and is soundly beaten.

People start to move to the supper room, but Violetta hangs back. She has asked Alfredo to see her for a moment. Alfredo enters, stiff with fury. He doesn’t know the real reason for her desertion, and assumes that she wants to return to her old courtesan life. He begs her to come back and, when she refuses, works himself up into a towering passion and calls in the rest of the guests.

Payment

In they come, greatly puzzled, and Alfredo points Violetta out to them. “Do you see that woman there?” he cries, “I lived with her for three months and forgot to pay her – I’ll do it now!” And he throws his winnings at her head.

Violetta faints, the guests are thunderstruck, and Germont marches forward. He has arrived in time to hear his son brand Violetta as a fallen woman, and is horrified at the boy’s behaviour. He turns on Alfredo, “Disgraceful! To raise your voice in public, and insult a woman!’ The Baron walks forward and challenges the young man to a duel; Alfredo collapses into remorse and hysteria.

The scene ends with an immense finale in which all the characters express their feelings; Alfredo simply breaks down, Germont remains inflexible and furious while Violetta, hardly able to stand, sings a beautiful line, full of love and reproach which soars above everybody else.

Watch the Act 2 Finale

The Last Act is set in Violetta’s bedroom. She is the final stage of TB and has been deserted by all her former friends and lovers. Only the faithful Annina still attends her, assisted by a charitable doctor. The doctor makes an early morning visit and talks soothingly as he feels the sick woman’s pulse. You will hear it fluttering in the strings, and it comes as no surprise to hear that Violetta is dying.

Germont’s Letter

Alone, she pulls out a letter from Germont and reads it, practically by heart. He tells her that Alfredo and the Baron fought a duel, neither was seriously hurt, and he took the young man abroad. He has however told him of Violetta’s sacrifice, and they are both hurrying home to see her. Violetta puts the letter down, “Too late!” she cries.

Outside a carnival procession passes and, overcome by the sounds of cheerful life going on all around her, Violetta is overcome with grief. At that very moment Alfredo rushes into the room.

Watch Alfredo and Violetta’s reunion

The Death Sentence

The two fall into each others arms, and Alfredo immediately proposes to take her away. For a moment Violetta believes it might be possible, she calls for the doctor and tries to get dressed. But she is too weak and, as she realises that not even Alfredo’s love can revive her, she faces up to the fact that she must die.

Watch Violetta’s collapse

Germont enters to stand by her bedside. He is shattered by what he sees; the man who was so confident that he knew all about love, sees True Love in front of him, dying on the bed. He tells Alfredo that he bitterly reproaches himself.

A Picture

Meanwhile Violetta has found a miniature of herself and she calls Alfredo over. She gives him the picture and tells him to give it to the girl he will marry. Once again Violetta projects herself on to the image of an innocent woman as she imagines Alfredo’s future wife. “You are to tell her,” she says, “that I will be praying for you both in Heaven.

The End

And now comes the most heart breaking part of the opera. Violetta suddenly gets to her feet. She walks downstage, her arms open wide, “Alfredo!” she cries, “the pain has gone, I feel life returning!” Only the doctor knows that this is the last stage of consumption and, as she turns to her lover, she falls dead to the ground.