The online opera guide of LA TRAVIATA
Verdi has rarely identified himself with a role as much as with Violetta’s. Due to his biography, he was able to put himself in the characters’ shoes to the highest degree, and never was his music more soulful and tragic than in this opera. Traviata became the most popular Verdi opera, in many countries even the most popular opera ever.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (Salon scene)
♪ Act II (Germont – Violetta scene)
♪ Act III (Salon-Scene, Death scene)
♪ Libiamo nei lieti calic (Brindisi)
♪ Di provenza il mar, il suol (Germonts Aria)
♪ Addio del passato (Death scene)
Roles and Synopsis
Francesco Maria Piave, based on Alexandre Dumas‘ La dame aux camélias
Violetta Valéry, courtesan in Paris (soprano) - Alfredo Germont, young man (tenor) - Georg Germont, father of Alfredo Germont (baritone) - Baron Duphol, friend / protector of Violetta (baritone)
EMI, Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and Ettore Bastiannini conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan (live recording)..
Verdi’s autobiographical aspect
The story of “Traviata” is based on the novel “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas. As a young man, Dumas himself lived together with Marie Duplessis, a well-known demimondaine. She died at the age of 25 of consumption and Dumas took her as a model for the protagonist of the novel. When Verdi first came into contact with Dumas’ novel, he was deeply moved. It reminded him of his own situation with his partner Giuseppina Strepponi. When he moved in with Giuseppina many years after the death of his wife, Giuseppina was already 32 years old and a woman “with a past”. She was not a courtesan, but in addition to her professional life as an opera singer she had three pregnancies with different men. Verdi and Strepponi were harassed by the distinguished society in Paris and retreated to Verdi’s homeland. In Bussetto the couple met with open resistance from the small-town population. It was particularly painful for Verdi that his former patron and benefactor Barezzi openly opposed him. It is quite possible that Verdi created a portrait of Barezzi with the role of Germont (which he had upgraded in comparison to Dumas plot). Two years later the two moved on to Santa Agata in the countryside. There the compositional history of “Traviata” began.
Libretto and history
Verdi saw Dumas “La dame aux camélias” in 1852 in the theater and was fascinated by the story, the true event of which took place in the years 44/45 and was written down by Dumas in 1852. Verdi felt great sympathy for the leading actress. So he and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave refrained from using insinuations like in the literary model and made of Violetta a person with tender and deeply felt feelings, surrounded by a hypocritical society. The libretto was closely based on the theater version of Dumas, only the second act was completely omitted. Piave finished the work on the libretto in January 1853 and Verdi began composing immediately after the premiere of Trovatore on January 19. He was under great time pressure, because he had arranged the date of the premiere with the “Teatro La Fenice” for March 6. According to his own statements, Verdi felt very inspired, the composition went well for him and he wrote the work within five weeks. The instrumentation was done during the rehearsals.
Music: the «Tinta musicale»
Like every opera, Verdi gave the “Traviata” its own musical basic colors and characterization. For the many salon scenes he used mainly waltz-like rhythms. He extended this dancing aspect to scenes such as duets etc., the majority of the score is written in triple time. A second characteristic element is the chamber-musical arrangement of the work. Large parts of the opera are arranged in arias or duets; choral scenes and trios appear only very sparsely. A third characteristic element is the use of the love motif which Verdi repeatedly quotes, sometimes in dramatic form (for example in “Amami” in the second act), sometimes in lyrical form (for example in the death scene and in the love duet of the first act). You can see this motif in the commentary to the aria “Ah fors’è lui“.
A Herculean task for the role of Violetta
The role of Violetta is one of the most brilliant of the soprano fach. Verdi demands a lot from the singer of the leading role. He has musically detailed the development of Violetta from the courtesan of the first act, to the sacrificial woman of the second, to the dying woman of the third act. Violetta must have both a great lyrical voice (Act II), be able to sing the dramatic passages with great expressiveness (Act III) and sing virtuoso coloraturas (Act I). Acting skills are also required; Violetta is present on stage practically throughout the entire piece and must dominate the opera to a large extent. Naturally, there are not many female singers who can combine all these aspects. There is a large consensus among experts that this is best achieved in the recording history by Maria Callas at the zenith of her vocal abilities.
The fiasco of the world premiere
Verdi already suspected in advance that the premiere could end in a fiasco. The choice of subject matter was a tremendous sensation, because until then Italian opera had only known historical subjects. With the contemporary “Traviata” it had arrived in the present for the first time. While kings and knights were the villains, Verdi took the risk of making a courtesan a heroine and holding up a mirror to Italian society. The “Teatro La Fenice” made this situation even worse by setting the action 150 years back into the baroque era, thus taking waltz music ad absurdum. In addition, there were casting difficulties because the opera was scheduled at short notice. Bitterly, Verdi had to admit at the premiere that it “La Traviata” only failed, but that people laughed at it as well. Despite many requests, Verdi refrained from performances in other theaters and eighteen months later, he staged the “Traviata” in exemplary fashion under ideal conditions, and it became an immediate success.
LA TRAVIATA ACT I
«Amore e Morte»
Synopsis: The Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry invited guests to a ball in her salon.
The overture begins with an ethereal melody, which we will hear again when Violetta lies dying on her bed in the third act. The second theme is the theme of love, which we will encounter in the passionate “Amami” of the second act, among others. Verdi thus exposes the two defining themes of this opera: love and death. This intention corresponded to the original title of the opera “Amore e Morte” (“Love and Death”), which was dropped due to Venetian censorship.
Ouvertüre – Kleiber
Synopsis: Violetta welcomes her guests.
Dell invito – Callas
The enchanting drinking song
Synopsis: Alfredo has the honor as a guest to sing a toast to the hostess. Violetta answers in the same mood and the whole company joins in.
Verdi composed this famous drinking song in a fast waltz beat.
Libiamo nei lieti calici – Callas / di Stefano
Listen to Enrico Caruso in this Brindisi with a brilliant final B.
Libiamo – Caruso / Gluck
Alfredo confesses his love to Violetta
Synopsis: Violetta asks the guests to move to the ballroom. She stays behind and suffers a fit of weakness, only Alfredo has remained unnoticed by her. He cares for her and confesses that he has loved her from afar for some time.
While the tenor sings a romantic melody, the courtesan remains musically still in her genre and repeats his melody with virtuoso, ornate singing, coquettishly doubled by the flute, resulting in a rousing duet.
Let’s listen to this excerpt in the version of the famous Giulini recording with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano from 1955. It is simply electrifying how the singers and the orchestra force their spell on us in this live recording. The tempo of the first part is slow, the strings are more melting than dotted and the singers sing broad ritardandi.
Un di felice, eterea – Callas / diStefano
The duets of Tito Schipa and Amelita Galli-Curci were and remain legend.
Un di felice, eterea – Schipa/Galli-Curci
Synopsis:Violetta reacts hesitantly to Alfredo’s advances. She knows life too well to believe him. She wants to gain time and gives him a camellia: when it has faded, he may come back. The guests from the dance hall come back to the room in high spirits.
Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora
Violetta is enchanted
Synopsis: When Violetta is alone after the ball, she is surprised to discover that she is moved by Alfredo’s confession of love and admits her longing for a deep relationship.
In the cantabile “Ah fors’è lui” we experience a new Violetta: it is the young woman who dreams of a better future. The coloratura has given way to a lyrical cantilena, tenderly framed by an arabesque of the flute. With her melody Verdi betrays that she is in love, she quotes Alfredo’s melody from the duet of the first act, the love motif:
Ah fors’è lui – Netrebko
Synopsis: But she chases away these foolish thoughts.
Follie! This is all madness and she wipes away the thoughts. With virtuoso trills and runs, which lead up to the high D-flat, spurred on by Alfredo’s singing, which she hears through the open window, she closes this fiery and virtuoso cabaletta with an ecstatic high C.
A rousing “Sempre libera” can be heard from Magda Olivero, “the prima donna who put the audience in a state of frenesia” (Peter G. Davis). Magda Olivero (1910-2014) had a fervent following, which idolized her and accompanied her everywhere.
Sempre libera (1) – Olivero
Listen to a wonderful Angela Gheorghiu in a recording from 1995. There was something magical about the making of this complete recording of Traviata. The key event was her meeting with Georg Solti. Solti wanted to produce his first Traviata at the age of 84 with fresh energy and came across Angela Gheorghiu. At a audition she convinced him immediately. The rest is legend: “Her performance spontaneously convinced the BBC’s television management to change the program and switch live to the Royal Opera House in London to broadcast the performance on television. Thus began the soprano’s triumphal procession in London” (source: Wikipedia).
Sempre libera (2) – Gheorgiu
LA TRAVIATA ACT II
Violetta and Alfredo are a couple
Synopsis: Three months later. Violetta has decided to turn her back on mundane life and has moved to the country with Alfredo, where the two of them spend happy months.
Verdi and Piave decided not to include the second meeting of Violetta and Alfredo in the libretto. Dumas’ second act is summarized in this short reminiscence by Alfredo, which consists of a short recitative and a rapturous tenor aria.
See this scene in an excerpt from the beautiful Zeffirelli film adaptation with Placido Domingo.
Lunge d lei…De’ miei bollenti spiriti (1) – Domingo / Kleiber
Synopsis: Alfredo learns from the housekeeper Annina that Violetta sold all her belongings in Paris to finance Alfredo and Violetta’s lavish life in the country. Ashamed, Alfredo recognizes his naivety and his shame. Alfredo goes to the city to raise funds.
The heroic music of this cabaletta seems somewhat out of place in lyrical Alfredo’s role. Its heroicity seems to come from the Trovatore, which Verdi had just composed. It shares the fate of many other Verdi arias, which are concluded by tenors with a high C, without Verdi having written one.
Listen to Luciano Pavarotti with a sweeping “O mio Rimorso” with a brilliant high C at the end.
O mio rimorso – Pavarotti
Alfredos father Germont appears
Synopsis: During Alfredo’s absence his father Germont appears. He accuses the surprised Violetta of ruining her son with her lavish lifestyle. When Violetta shows him the documents of the sale of her possessions, Germont is surprised. Nevertheless, he demands that she separate from Alfredo, since his daughter cannot marry because of her brother’s disreputable liaison.
Pura siccome un angelo – Hampson / Netrebko
He demands of her to leave Alfredo
Synopsis: Germont urges her to leave Alfredo, for when her beauty has faded, he will grow weary of her.
Verdi has Germont sing in an artificial, stilted tone with coloratura. Whenever Verdi uses coloraturas, he wants to make a statement, in this case he exposes the falseness of Germont.
Un di, quando le veneri – Hampson / Netrebko
Synopsis: Violetta recognizes this impossible situation.
Violetta is devastated. Verdi now shows us with musical means that Violetta has inner greatness. Bar for bar the voice raises and she shows that after the low blow she is ready for the sacrifice of renunciation. The duet is complemented by Germont’s phrases of regret, whose sincerity does not leave the listener completely convinced.
Ah dite alla giovine – Callas/Sereni
Synopsis: Violetta explains her renunciation and Germont tries to comfort her.
In this passage we hear Violetta’s heartrending renunciation. Her “Conosca il sacrifizio” is accompanied by the painful song of the English horn. For the first time in this duet, one senses sincerity in the voice of Germont, who begins to sense the greatness of Violetta and, moved, takes leave of her.
Imponete…non amarlo ditegli – Callas / Bastiannini / Giulini
Synopsis: With a heavy heart she writes in a letter to Alfredo her renunciation of marriage and claims that she wants to return to her old life and therefore leaves him. When Alfredo returns, he is surprised by Violetta’s mood, but she does not explain herself to him, only asks him to love her. Alfredo has received a letter from his father announcing his arrival. Violetta must say goodbye to him without letting him know.
The following scene is one of the most moving scenes in opera literature. It is the desperate “Amami” that we hear in the dramatic version of the love motif with which Violetta screams the pain from her soul as she says goodbye to Alfredo.
Listen to this excerpt in the interpretation by Maria Callas, who literally lets us experience this scene.
Dammi tu forza … Amami – Callas/ Di Stefano
Germont speaks to Alfredo
Synopsis: Alfredo did not notice that Violetta had left the house with the carriage in the direction of Paris when a messenger hands him Violetta’s letter. Alfredo, who does not know the background, is deeply moved. At this moment his father appears and learns about Violetta’s farewell letter. Germont tries to comfort his son with memories of Alfredo’s parental home.
With an expressive cello cantilena accompanied by a flute, Verdi leads us into the world of Germont. The baritone sings a nostalgic melody, which is decorated with graceful ornamental notes. It seems to the listener almost like a lullaby that is supposed to calm a child.
Listen to a recording of the American baritone Robert Merrill with the NBC Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Robert Merrill wrote extensively in his memoirs about the work on the Traviata with Toscanini. On the one hand he drew the picture of a tyrant who did not stop at even the most primitive curses, but also the picture of a gifted musician: “The Maestro has made you better than you ever thought you could be. He made you float. He made the impossible possible”. Listen to the impressive recording of this collaboration from 1946, where Merrill impresses with his lyrical baritone of great sonority.
Di Provenza il mar, il suol – Merrill/Toscanini
In Flora’s Parisian Salon
Synopsis: Violetta has moved in with Baron Duphol and lives the life of a courtesan again. In Flora’s salon a soirée is in progress. Some guests have dressed up as gypsies and read out of the guests’ hands.
Noi siamo zingarelle
Synopsis: Alfredo has also appeared. With gloomy thoughts he sits down at the table of the card players. When Violetta appears, she sees him, but Duphol forbids her to speak to him. Alfredo provokes Duphol with humiliating statements and the latter sits down at the card table and loses a significant sum to Alfredo.
This scene takes place accompanied by nervous, hectic motives of the strings. We hear both the dialogue of the card players and Violetta, who is in the next room. The spectacle thus takes place on two levels, creating a dramatic musical effect.
Voi! Alfredo – Cura / Gvazava
The rousing duet «Inviato a seguirmi»
Synopsis: Violetta fears a duel and writes Alfredo a note to speak with him alone. When he comes, she tries in vain to convince him to leave the salon.
We hear this dramatic scene in the explosive version of the Giulini recording. Whipped by the strings, Callas and di Stefano engage in an unbridled dialogue.
Invitato a qui seguirmi – Callas / di Stefano / Giulini
Synopsis: Outraged, Alfredo throws the money he has won at Violetta’s feet, saying that he has now paid for Violetta’s service. Germont appears and reproaches Alfredo for his unworthy behavior. Alfredo recognizes in deep shame his misconduct and Germont is desperate because he cannot reveal the truth to his son.
Ogni suo aver tal femmina … Di sprezzo degno – Gobbi
Synopsis: Violetta is deeply touched and the guests accuse Alfredo of his behaviour. Alfredo comes to his senses and is ashamed of his behavior.
Alfredo, di questo core
LA TRAVIATA ACT III
As an introduction we hear a chamber music piece with the theme we know from the overture, which symbolizes Violetta’s waning vitality.
Introduction – Solti
Violetta takes leave of the world
Synopsis: Violetta is in her bedroom. She is weakened and the doctor whispers to Annina that she has only a few hours to live. Violetta reads the letter from Germont. She learns that Duphol has been seriously injured and that Alfredo has subsequently left the country. He himself recognized his mistake and explained everything in a letter to his son and asked him to come to Violetta. Deeply sad, Violetta feels that it is too late.
While Violetta reads the letter from Germont, we hear the love theme tenderly resounding in the strings. Now one of the great farewell arias of the opera literature begins, introduced by the oboe and accompanied by sixteen muted string instruments. Violetta’s singing is occasionally played around by the English horn, occasionally doubled. The first verse sounds somberly in minor, the second transfigured in major.
Teneste la promessa…addio del passato – Callas
Synopsis: Alfredo appears and passionately asks for forgiveness. They embrace each other and dream briefly of their future.
In the same metre of 3/8 time as they had sung the Brindisi at the beginning of the opera, the two sing wistfully in duet for the last time.
In this recording we hear how wonderfully the young Alfredo Kraus and Maria Callas create the duet. It is an excerpt from the famous Lisbon Traviata.
Parigi o cara lasceremo – Kraus / Callas
A second version sung by Lucrezia Bori and John Mc Cormack from 1914
Parigi o cara lasceremo – Bori/McCormack
Synopsis: But Violetta is already fatally ill.
In this scene Violetta sings the famous “Ah! Grand dio, morir si giovane”, whose cry of Maria Calls goes through marrow and bone.
Ah non piu – Callas/Giulini
Verdi’s gripping death scene
Synopsis: Now Germont also appears, who embraces Violetta full of remorse. She gives Alfredo a small portrait of her as a reminder and dies in his arms.
The death scene is moving. The opera ends with a trio introduced by a funeral march. At the end we hear the love theme once again, no longer sung, because Violetta is too weak for this, but only performed by a solo violin. The opera ends with dramatic chords.
Prendi, quest’è l’immagine – Callas / di Stefano / Giulini
BONUS: Toscanini Traviata rehearsal
Finally, a wonderful audio document by Toscanini. However, the bassists who had to listen to a tirade of Toscanini would not see it that way. We are allowed to enjoy ourselves with a smile 70 years later.
Traviata Rehearsal – Toscanini
EMI with Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and Ettore Bastiannini conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala Milan (live recording).
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to LA TRAVIATA by Giuseppe Verdi.