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La Traviata: A Modern masterpiece

Josh Borths – January 7, 2019

La Traviata is consistently crowned the most performed opera in the world, receiving thousands of performances a year. In fact, Verdi—rivaled only by Mozart and Puccini—dominates the annual top ten list. Because of this perennial popularity, audiences often equate Giuseppe Verdi with their conception of opera itself. Verdi is opera’s ivory tower, a timeless beacon of tradition that no modern composer can ever hope to match.


However, to view Verdi in this deified light is to miss what makes Verdi special: he was a modern composer concerned only with contemporary, human emotions. He was not above the fray. He was in it. He was not concerned with reforming opera for all time. He was interested in creating musical dramas for his time, working tirelessly with his collaborators to write musical dramas that grabbed his audiences’ attention and never let go.


La Traviata is based on the French novel La Dame aux Camélias by 23-year-old Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the famed writer of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo). The novel was an overnight sensation, scandalizing the literati of Europe like many of our modern New York Times bestsellers or Oscar award-winning films today. Chances are that Verdi had read the novel before attending its theatrical adaptation in Paris, but after the performance of the play, Verdi was certain this contemporary tale ripped from the headlines was ripe for operatic treatment.


La Traviata premiered in 1853 at the La Fenice in Venice, and while Verdi deemed the first run of performances “a fiasco” due to faulty casting and clumsy rehearsals, subsequent revivals were popular with opera-going audiences. La Traviata was quickly deemed fresh, relevant, and thoroughly modern.


La Traviata is an intimate, domestic opera that focuses exclusively on characters who look and act like those present at its premiere. In fact, Verdi went so far as to demand the opera be staged in modern dress, further blurring the lines between audiences and onstage characters. Even though Venetian censors concerned about the scandalous subject matter required the original production to resemble Paris of the 1700s, the opera’s timeliness was not lost on the public.


Verdi’s score compounded La Traviata’s modern vibe. Throughout the first half of the 1800s, Italian opera was dominated by musical and dramatic conventions that told the stories of noble heroes of bygone eras. But in La Traviata, Verdi turned these conventions on their head. Verdi gave musical forms reserved for kings, queens, and heroes of foreign lands to real people. In doing so, Verdi elevated the inner life of Violetta and her lover, pushing the art form forward and setting the stage for the approaching verismo era.


La Traviata embraces certain conventions, but it is by no means conventional. Act one is shockingly short. Verdi distilled formal musical structures to their most essential elements contrasting set pieces—such as the famous brindisi—with modern, psychological moments—such as Violetta and Alfredo’s opening duet or the famous aria E’ strano…sempre libera. Verdi’s careful, character-driven music puts his specifically drawn characters in direct conflict with the formal world of Paris that swirls around them. Verdi is not afraid of ugliness or raw emotion, and throughout La Traviata, he employs a musical shock and awe that propels the tragedy forward. However, despite these radical elements, Verdi—like Shakespeare—is able to masterfully blend these disparate influences together and disguise these radical departures as digestible, hummable tunes.


La Traviata is not a calcified museum piece that exists out of time. It exists in time, and therefore can speak directly to us today. Its themes of love, sacrifice, disease, and misfortune are still painfully with us, and its characters are still be mirrored in the audience. La Traviata is not escapist work of art. It is an immersive one, and while we may wear jeans, cocktail dresses, cowboy hats, or t-shirts, real life still manages to be reflect back onto the audience just as Verdi would have wanted.

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