La traviata means ‘the fallen one’ and refers to the heroine, Violetta. Women were called ‘fallen’ when they were considered sinful. Actually only sexual sins counted (nobody ever called a woman ‘la traviata’ for robbing a bank…). Violetta is a courtesan, that is she sells herself as an escort to rich men for large amounts of money. This is different from being a prostitute, as you’ll see below, but Violetta would still be thought of as a fallen woman.
The story of La Traviata is extremely simple. The opera is set in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, Alfredo Germont (tenor) falls in love with a courtesan, the consumptive and beautiful Violetta (soprano). They meet at a party in her Paris apartment, fall in love and leave the city to live together in the country.
News of the affair trickles down to the small country town where Alfredo’s family lives. Everyone there is so shocked at his behaviour, that the young man who is due to marry his sister considers breaking their engagement. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (baritone) rushes up to Paris and, in an interview with Violetta, persuades her to abandon Alfredo.
Violetta returns to her life as a courtesan (without telling Alfredo why) and is discovered at another party by Alfredo, who insults her in front of the other guests. He is hustled abroad by his father.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, Violetta succumbs to consumption. She retreats to her room, attended only by her faithful maid, Annina (mezzo soprano), and her Doctor (bass). Alfredo and his father return in time to be reconciled, but it is too late; not even Alfredo’s love can save Violetta and her death ends the opera.