After all the Wagner and Puccini, the time seemed right to dip a toe into Verdi – and what could be better than to start with La traviata, the most performed opera in the world, according to Operabase.
First performed at La Fenice in 1853, it was based on the play La Dame aux Camélias, which was in turn adapted from his own novel by Alexandre Dumas fils. The inspiration was a legendary French courtesan, Marie Duplessis – Dumas fils was one of her lovers – who died of tuberculosis in 1847.
Verdi originally intended to title it Violetta, after the central character, but opted instead for La traviata – The Fallen Woman.
While the plot allows for the convention of the punishment of an early death for defying convention and propriety, it’s clear throughout that Verdi wanted to challenge perceptions.
He certainly succeeded – as some reactions at the time show. When first staged in England in 1856, “the heads of the Church did their best to put an injunction upon performance[s],” Leslie’s Weekly told its US readers.
But if Violetta dies, then what moral objections could there be to the story?
The answer is simple: it’s the nebulous concept of honour.
Having fallen genuinely in love with Alfredo, Violetta has retired from her life as a courtesan.
She knows that she doesn’t have long to live after an initial episode of tuberculosis, but is happy.
However, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, is convinced that his son’s relationship is bad for his family – bad for their ‘honour’.
He doesn’t believe Violetta when she says she doesn’t have long to live, finally convincing her that she has to give up Alfredo or the marriage – and future happiness – of his daughter (who is pure as an angel, he explains) will be under threat.
In sacrificing her own happiness, Violetta is shown to be the one with ‘honour’, while Giorgio behaves dishonourably and Alfredo – who has let Violetta keep him financially – is little better.
Some redemption is permitted the men, as Giorgio realises how poorly he has behaved and tells Alfredo to go to Violetta. He goes too and further learns of her honour when he sees that she really is dying. Thus he embraces her as a daughter.
It’s easy to consider that ‘honour’ in this sense is an outmoded concept, but when ‘honour’ crimes still occur, across cultures, the issue remains with us in a life-destroying way and, if Verdi’s opera no longer outrages, it remains a valid comment on the nature of ‘honour’.
On the night we saw this Royal Opera House revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production, Corinne Winters played the iconic heroine – and was simply superb.
She looks gorgeous, sings like an angel and excellently captured the intense emotion of the role.
Winters had excellent support in Atall Ayan as Alfredo and George Petean as Giorgio. The latter’s entrance was a masterclass in melodramatic menace – Verdi’s music could have been penned with a sort of Perils of Pauline moment in mind – but his singing was superb, particularly as he coaxes Violetta to leave his son.
Conductor Maurizio Benini had the orchestra in superb form: the balance of sound was excellent.
I had a slightly cynical moment when the curtain rose for the last time, as I realised that the entire third act is a bedroom death scene, but by the end, my eyes were pricking.
So it’s a fair bet that this will not be the last Verdi that I see.