La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, showing the set and costumes to be used by OPERA San Antonio on September 13 and 15. Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Garnett Bruce will direct La Traviata for San Antonio Opera on September 13 and 15. He previously directed Madame Butterfly here in 2015. He was the director for Gounod’s Faust at Houston Grand Opera in 2016.
Garnett’s article gives an inside look at the thinking of the director in planning the production. It tells us how our director will be interpreting what the work really means, and how it should affect us.
Translating the title of La Traviata into English makes “The Fallen Woman” seems quite a curse for a beloved character from our operatic canon. The citizens of the 19th century, for all their Bohemian romantic qualities, judged women quite harshly if they strayed from a proscribed role of dutiful wife and mother. The gracious and erudite courtesan suffered as much or more as the ignoble harlot.
Verdi recognized the cruelty of a society who would celebrate these courtesans with jewels and lavish lifestyles, but just as easily dispose of them whenever they became sick (or pregnant) condemning all but the strongest to a desperate fate. He set about to show us the heart, soul, and sacrifice behind Violetta Valery who actually finds a man who genuinely loves and respects her, but must give him up, deferring to the rules of “polite” society.
The courtesan may not be the most honorable of professions — living in conspicuous luxury for the entertainment and sexual appetites of wealthy men. But this “Demi-monde” (literally “half world”) was a driving engine behind French society, arts and politics. Previously unknown individual wealth now fueled the dressmakers, the jewelers, the architects, even the artists of the mid-19th C. That lavish lifestyle once reserved for royalty alone was now amassed and displayed by vibrant aristocrats.
Verdi based his 1853 opera on the sensational novella by Alexandre Dumas-fils which shook all of aristocratic Paris in 1848. By all accounts, the fictional Marguerite Gautier of the novel was based on Marie DuPlessis who seemed to exemplify the woman who has it all, but succumbs to consumption and dies penniless at age 23. The moralists might say her fate was justified, but Dumas-fils (and Verdi) knew differently. Could Verdi catch the conscience of the upper classes and end this horror? He would use opera to write about current events, applying the talent and tunes that had won him international acclaim in Rigoletto (1851) and Il Trovatore (1853) to the tragedy that surrounded him. Violetta / DuPlessis was an orphan, perhaps an illegitimate child, and finds her way into Parisian society, and then conquers it. Smart, sensible, stylish - she seemed destined to lead society rather than be smothered by it. Even when she and Alfredo start a quiet life in the suburbs, the Demi-monde finds her.
Working with his frequent librettist Francesco Piave, Verdi’s defense of a woman’s liberty
unfolds in four scenes. Violetta is an extra-ordinary woman - running her household, her affairs, her fashionable life with grace and strategy. We are shown three notable characteristics: the party Violetta, the idyllic Violetta, and the dying Violetta. Verdi stretches every soprano’s vocal technique with coloratura in the party scenes, luxurious lyric phrases in the both scenes of the second act, and then a stubborn strength to live even as she is breathing her last.
Where did she go wrong? Where did she “fall”? I prefer to think that society failed her - not the other way around. The big shift happens in the choral ensemble of Act 2. The elder Germont admonishes his son for being rude in public, and the other women abandon protocol to rush to Violetta’s defense. The fun and games of Flora’s party gives way to the humanity and tragedy as these superficial couples are forced to confront real emotion. Even Baron Douphol (almost a villain for trying to control Violetta) defends her in front of the outrageous Alfredo by challenging the insult with a duel. However, any societal sympathy for Violetta quickly evaporates as simply a façade. Soon, she is forced to sell her possessions and no one (save the doctor) visits her as she lays dying.
Violetta condemns herself in the final act asking forgiveness in the face of death.
“Della traviata sorridi al desio; a lei, deh, perdona”
“Smile on the wish of the fallen women, grant her forgiveness (for her sins)”
Verdi’s music moves back and forth from major to minor, A languid solo links the two verses of her final aria, revealing her facing her fears - even though the steady rhythm beneath her shows strength and dignity and courage. Yet it was the callow neglect of a self-centered world which allowed the Violettas to slip from view in clouds of shame as minor memories rather than celebrating their major contributions to society and embracing their bold and vibrant lives. Whenever I approach La Traviata, I am guided by the final words in Dumas’ novel: “this was an extra-ordinary woman or no one would have bothered to write her story.” Verdi lifts up the fallen woman forever by writing music of beauty, honestly, and integrity. See Violetta come to life again this fall in San Antonio.