Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on the play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, Jr.
Premiere: Venice, Teatro la Fenice, 1853
Verdi’s La Traviata survived a notoriously unsuccessful opening night to become one of the best-loved operas in the repertoire. Following the larger-scale dramas of Rigoletto and Il Trovatore, its intimate scope and subject matter inspired the composer to create some of his most profound and heartfelt music. The title role of the "fallen woman" has captured the imaginations of audiences and performers alike with its inexhaustible vocal and dramatic possibilities—and challenges. Violetta is considered a pinnacle of the soprano repertoire.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) composed 28 operas during his 60 active years in the theater, at least half of which are at the core of today’s repertory. His role in Italy’s cultural and political development has made him an icon in his native country, and he is cherished the world over for the universality of his art. Francesco Maria Piave (1810–1876), his librettist for La Traviata, collaborated with him on ten works, including Rigoletto, La Forza del Destino, and Macbeth. Alexandre Dumas fils (1824–1895) was the son of the author of The Three Musketeers. The play La Dame aux Camélias is based on his own novel of the same name.
With La Traviata, Verdi and Piave fashioned an opera from a play set in contemporary times—an anomaly in the composer’s long career—but censorship forced them to move the action to the 18th century. Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias was a meditation on (and reinterpretation of) the author’s youthful affair with the celebrated prostitute Marie Duplessis, known as a sophisticated and well-read woman whose charms and tact far surpassed her station. The play is still staged today in its original form and exists in several film incarnations, most notably Greta Garbo’s Camille (1936). The Met’s production follows Verdi’s intention of telling a contemporary story by placing the action in a timeless modern setting.
Verdi’s musical-dramatic ability to portray the individual in a marginalized relationship to society keeps this work on the world’s stages. The vocal and emotional scope of the title character is enormous: compare the defiant fireworks in the Act I show-stopper aria "Sempre libera" to the haunting regret of Act III’s "Addio, del passato." The dramatic demands continue in Violetta’s interactions with others, most notably in the extended Act II confrontation with her lover’s father, Germont. Often cited as the emotional core of La Traviata, it is one of the most resoundingly truthful scenes in opera. Germont embodies the double-faced morality of the bourgeoisie, and Violetta’s interactions with him parallel her precarious dealings with society in general. She begins with defiance ("Donna son io"), becomes desperate ("Non sapete"), and finishes defeated ("Dite alla giovine"). It is a vast journey within a single scene.
La Traviata at the Met
La Traviata was performed within a month of the Met’s opening in 1883, but then was retired during a subsequent all-German period. After returning to the schedule in 1894, the opera has appeared in all but 15 seasons since. Notable productions were introduced in 1921, designed by architectural legend Joseph Urban; 1935, choreographed by George Balanchine; 1957, directed by Tyrone Guthrie; and 1966, directed by Alfred Lunt. The two most recent stagings (1989 and 1998) were both directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The roster of Violettas at the Met reads like a who’s who of the art of the soprano: the great Licia Albanese holds the record for most performances of the role at the Met (87), followed by American beauty Anna Moffo (80) and Spanish femme fatale Lucrezia Bori (58). Renée Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu have been among the notable recent interpreters of this timeless role. The current production by Willy Decker had its premiere on New Year’s Eve 2010 with Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta.