“La Traviata” in Utah

UTAH OPERA PRESENTS:

CAPITOL THEATRE

JAN 18, 20, 22 & 24 (7:30 PM)
JAN 26, 2014 (2 PM)

Verdi is arguably opera’s most successful composer and La Traviata is one of his greatest hits. This is the story of Violetta, a Parisian courtesan who must battle the twin demons of consumption and a broken heart. Hers is the ultimate operatic life, one filled with grand parties, grander sacrifices, and some of Verdi’s most memorable music.

This return of Utah Opera’s lavish production, last seen in 2006, will transport you to Paris with lush costumes and grand sets. La Traviata is filled with memorable characters and some of the most familiar music in opera, including the drinking song “Libiamo.” Celebrate Utah Opera’s return to the newly remodeled Capitol Theatre and experience Verdi’s La Traviata.

CASTVioletta: Sara Gartland
Alfredo: Cody Austin
Germont: James Westman
Gastone: Tyson Miller
Baron Douphol: Shea Owens
Flora: Abigail Levis
Annina: Amy Owens
Marquis d’Obigny: Tyler Oliphant
Dr. Grenvil: Kevin Nakatani
Giuseppe: Chad Millar
Conductor: Robert Tweten
Director: Jose Maria Condemi

La Traviata Synopsis

ACT I. In her Paris salon, the courtesan Violetta Valéry greets party guests, including Flora Bervoix, the Marquis d’Obigny, Baron Douphol, and Gastone, who introduces a new admirer, Alfredo Germont. This young man, having adored Violetta from afar, joins her in a drinking song (Brindisi: “Libiamo”). An orchestra is heard in the next room, but as guests move there to dance, Violetta suffers a fainting spell, sends the guests on ahead, and goes to her parlor to recover. Alfredo comes in, and since they are alone, confesses his love (“Un dì felice”). At first Violetta protests that love means nothing to her. Something about the young man’s sincerity touches her, however, and she promises to meet him the next day. After the guests have gone, Violetta wonders if Alfredo could actually be the man she could love (“Ah, fors’è lui”). But she decides she wants freedom (“Sempre libera”), though Alfredo’s voice, heard outside, argues in favor of romance.

ACT II. Some months later Alfredo and Violetta are living in a country house near Paris, where he praises their contentment (“De’ miei bollenti spiriti”). But when the maid, Annina, reveals that Violetta has pawned her jewels to keep the house, Alfredo leaves for the city to settle matters at his own cost. Violetta comes looking for him and finds an invitation from Flora to a party that night. Violetta has no intention of going back to her old life, but trouble intrudes with the appearance of Alfredo’s father. Though impressed by Violetta’s ladylike manners, he demands she renounce his son: the scandal of Alfredo’s affair with her has threatened his daughter’s engagement (“Pura siccome un angelo”). Violetta says she cannot, but Germont eventually convinces her (“Dite alla giovine”). Alone, the desolate woman sends a message of acceptance to Flora and begins a farewell note to Alfredo. He enters suddenly, surprising her, and she can barely control herself as she reminds him of how deeply she loves him (“Amami, Alfredo”) before rushing out. Now a servant hands Alfredo her farewell note as Germont returns to console his son with reminders of family life in Provence (“Di Provenza”). But Alfredo, seeing Flora’s invitation, suspects Violetta has thrown him over for another lover. Furious, he determines to confront her at the party. At her soirée that evening, Flora learns from the Marquis that Violetta and Alfredo have parted, then clears the floor for hired entertainers – a band of fortune-telling Gypsies and some matadors who sing of Piquillo and his coy sweetheart (“E Piquillo un bel gagliardo”). Soon Alfredo strides in, making bitter comments about love and gambling recklessly at cards. Violetta has arrived with Baron Douphol, who challenges Alfredo to a game and loses a small fortune to him. Everyone goes in to supper, but Violetta has asked Alfredo to see her. Fearful of the Baron’s anger, she wants Alfredo to leave, but he misunderstands her apprehension and demands that she admit she loves Douphol. Crushed, she pretends she does. Now Alfredo calls in the others, denounces his former love and hurls his winnings at her feet (“Questa donna conoscete?”). Germont enters in time to see this and denounces his son’s behavior. The guests rebuke Alfredo and Douphol challenges him to a duel.

ACT III. In Violetta’s bedroom six months later, Dr. Grenvil tells Annina her mistress has not long to live: tuberculosis has claimed her. Alone, Violetta rereads a letter from Germont saying the Baron was only wounded in his duel with Alfredo, who knows all and is on his way to beg her pardon. But Violetta senses it is too late (“Addio del passato”). Paris is celebrating Mardi Gras and, after revelers pass outside, Annina rushes in to announce Alfredo. The lovers ecstatically plan to leave Paris forever (“Parigi, o cara”). Germont enters with the doctor before Violetta is seized with a last resurgence of strength. Feeling life return, she staggers and falls dead at her lover’s feet.

NOTES ON LA TRAVIAT: NOBLE HEART

In his 19th opera, La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi wanted to strike to the core with his criticism of society’s blind devotion to rules of propriety. First, he selected a plot that asserted that a noble heart should be more highly valued than a spotless reputation. The story is set in 19th-century Paris’ “demi-monde,” where courtesans presided with their parties and gambling and available sexuality. As a novel and as a play, it had already shocked people to attention and then challenged them to see beyond snap judgments.

The story came from a play, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias, or Camille), written by Alexandre Dumas, the son of the Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and other 19th-century thrillers. The 1852 play was based on Dumas’ own 1848 novel of the same name, which had, in turn, been based on his own personal experiences with a famous Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis. They had had a one-year love affair when they were both 20, and then Dumas had left her. He returned to Paris three years later, just after Marie’s death from tuberculosis.

Dumas’ detailed descriptions in novel and drama of the “demi-monde” created a scandal; people in upright society knew that this world existed but tried to ignore it. The scandal, of course, helped sell his books, but it also delayed the story’s progress to the stage. When the play finally appeared in theatres in 1852, people came in droves to see it. Actresses soon vied to play the courtesan, including Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Gish, and then Greta Garbo in the 1936 film Camille. Still later, Julia Roberts took up a similar role in 1990’s Pretty Woman, which confesses its debt to this story when the film’s central characters attend an opera performance of …La Traviata.

Verdi’s personal history with the cruelty with which social norms are often upheld probably played into his attraction to the story when he saw the play in 1852. In 1851, he had moved back to his hometown of Busseto, Italy, with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano and singing teacher he had known since 1841 and with whom he had been living with since at least 1847. The unmarried Strepponi, who had earlier also given birth to three children out of wedlock, suffered from the scorn of the Busseto villagers.

Verdi would have been drawn to the story anyway, though, because he was a compassionate man. In opera after opera, he pleaded through music and story for people to show compassion for others who don’t fit easily in society, like the hunchback Rigoletto, the slave Aida, the courtesan Violetta. He practiced compassion outside the theatre too: he built a hospital near his estate, and he founded and set up an endowment for Casa di Riposo, a home for impoverished retired musicians.

In addition to selecting a story that would pull people’s heartstrings, Verdi attempted to shock his audience members into attention in a way theretofore unheard of. He wanted to set the opera whose story had occurred in contemporary times in contemporary rooms and costumes. This just hadn’t been done before, and the censors in Venice, where the premiere would take place, felt it would be both disappointing and uncomfortable for theatre-goers not to be transported to someplace grand and far away during their evening’s entertainment. So Verdi and Piave transposed the story’s action to that distant country the past, and set the opera in 1700.

We experience a different but equivalent distancing in 21st century productions. Utah Opera’s production will be set in the late 19th century, but we hope you will not feel so comfortably distant that you don’t feel the timelessness of Verdi’s urging for human empathy.

Verdi’s third and most sure-fire weapon in his campaign to win us over to the character scorned by higher society yet loveable for her good, self-sacrificing heart is the noble, gentle music he wrote for her. Verdi charts the development of Violetta’s character through the shifting styles of music she sings in each act, but always with a running thread of her dignity. In Act I, when she claims to her future lover Alfredo that she lives for pleasure alone, her music is filled with skips and ornaments and light touches, but as she listens to the sincere devotion in his aria of love, she takes on his harmony; then the melody of his invitation to a less light-hearted way of living haunts her until it is also hers, and she too accepts the burden and the delight of love (croce e delizia al cor).

Her character is put to the test in Act II, in a scene Dumas added when he transferred his story from novel to dramatic form: Alfredo’s father requests that Violetta leave Alfredo for his own and his family’s reputation, and he further asks her to lie to Alfredo about why she’s leaving so that he won’t follow her. It’s clear from the beginning of the scene that Violetta is a more considerate and dignified person than the “cultured” father, and even he is forced to acknowledge her noble spirit as he sees her develop the determination to sacrifice her own happiness for what she is convinced are the best interests of her beloved. Verdi gives her weighty, dramatic music to express her agony and devotion. Her outburst to Alfredo as she runs away from him at the end of the scene is a good example—it is she who finally gives words to the yearning melody introduced by the violins near the beginning of the Act I Prelude, “Amami, Alfredo, quant’ io t’amo.” [love me Alfredo, as I love you].

Verdi gives Violetta equally noble music in Act III, which takes place several months later, when her body has finally succumbed to the tuberculosis from which she has suffered throughout the story. This music is weaker, gentler still, appropriate to her frail state. One of the most poignant moments in the opera occurs when she is alone on stage rereading a letter from Alfredo’s father in which the old man repents what he did to her and his son. She is so weak she can’t even sing but only speak the words, while a solo oboe plays beneath to underline her frailty, loneliness and hopelessness, since it truly seems too late.

No wonder this role scares sopranos—Violetta has to have a different voice for each act. Perhaps some of our empathy and admiration for Violetta by the end of the opera comes from our related feelings for the soprano who can perform this demanding role.

In many ways, the story of La Traviata is difficult to relate to: not only is the opera usually set at least a century in the past, but in it a woman suffers and dies from tuberculosis, which most of us have difficulty even recognizing as a modern illness. Moreover, the woman is a courtesan, a social class Americans can hardly understand. But Verdi’s music takes us on an important human journey reminding us that a noble heart is the best trait for any human being at any time, in any place. A person who loves deeply, who can sacrifice her own desires for the good of others, is an admirable human being, no matter what “monde” she lives in. To have the musical genius of Verdi underlining such a theme drives it straight to our hearts.

Paula Fowler is Utah Symphony & Opera’s
Director of Education and Community Outreach

 

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