Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor at Emerson College, talks to Prof. David Rosen about Verdi’s La Traviata. Prof. Rosen is a world-renowned musicologist, a leading expert on Verdi, and Professor Emeritus of Music at Cornell University. Prof. Rosen was responsible for the critical edition of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (published in The Works of Giuseppe Verdi), and the Cambridge Music Handbook on the Requiem. He also co-authored a volume dedicated to the disposizione scenica of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Prof. Rosen discovered in the Paris Bibliothèque de l’Opéra a passage in Verdi’s manuscript score for Don Carlos which had had to be cut in order to ensure that the opera’s première would finish before midnight. Prof. Rosen was one of the first scholars to study the contemporary staging manuals (disposizioni sceniche or livrets de mise en scène) and other sources that help us reconstruct the visual aspects of 19th-century opera.

MR: Verdi’s wishes for a contemporary setting were vetoed by the management of La Fenice Theatre, which wanted more sumptuous costumes, and he was forced to set the opera “around 1700.”  Modern directors have taken Verdi’s wishes for contemporary setting to heart, staging many updated adaptations.  Can you tell us more about the setting of La Traviata?

DR: Of course, Verdi’s wishes for a “contemporary” setting can be interpreted in two ways: “contemporary” with the première (1853) or “contemporary” with whenever the opera is performed (for us, 2014).  For today’s audiences a setting of 1853 (and of course, “around 1700”) is historical, just as the 15th-century setting of Il Trovatore is historical.  Productions with 20th- or 21st-century settings—where Violetta is more likely to suffer from AIDS than TB—are legitimate of course, but the music of Traviata is unusually attuned to a particular setting: mid-19th-century Paris.  In the opening scene of Rigoletto, set in the 16th-century court of Mantua, the Duke’s musicians play 18th-century dances—a minuet (reminiscent of the one in Don Giovanni) and a perigordino.  Historical accuracy counts for little: it is enough that the music comes across as old-fashioned.  However, in La Traviata, unusually, the music does match the setting—Paris in the second half of the 19th century.  In the opening scene the band plays a waltz—labeled Valzer in early printed piano-vocal scores, though not in Verdi’s autograph score.  Much of the music in the opera is in triple meter or subdivides the beat into three, which may suggest a waltz.  The waltz enjoyed an enormous vogue in Paris at the time—recall that Marie Duplessis, the real-life model for Violetta, was known as a skilled dancer of the waltz, and that in Dumas fils’ novel, Marguerite (Violetta) attempts to play Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz on the piano.  The fake Gypsy fortune-tellers and especially the fake matadors at Flora’s party well reflect the Parisian vogue for Spanish dance initiated by Fanny Elssler’s performance of the cachucha in 1836.  Another example of the connection between mid-19th-century Paris and the ambiance of the opera is the boisterous, vulgar off-stage Baccanale of the fatted ox—referencing a Parisian tradition during Carnival season—directly following Violetta’s plaintive aria “Addio del passato.”  This may serve as an ironic substitute for the (expected?) cabaletta that Violetta is too weak to sing.

MR: After the March 6, 1853, première, which wasn’t very successful, Verdi retouched the score for the second performance, on May 6, 1854.  The opera also went through many changes, forced by the current censorship, particularly in reference to Violetta’s profession.  Can you tell us about these different versions? How did the censorship affect La Traviata?  

DR: Partly because of self-censorship (Violetta’s profession is never explicitly stated), there do not seem to have been problems with the censors regarding the première in Venice.  The problems started when the opera went on the road, especially in the South, where the censorship was more stringent.  The censors in both Naples and Rome turned Violetta into a virtuous orphan girl with a fondness for parties, forcing them to invent a reason why she and Alfredo can’t marry.  The Roman censors’ solution: Germont had already promised Alfredo to another girl (whom he duly marries, but she conveniently dies in time for Alfredo to return to the dying Violetta).  One usually depicts the censors as denying the public access to ideas and information that it desired, but in this case, judging from contemporary criticism, the censors’ views have been shared by part of the public.  For example, Abramo Basevi begins the chapter on La Traviata in his 1859 Studio sulle opere di Giuseppe Verdi with a tirade about “the immorality of today’s [French] literature.”  Hugo had shown “the courtesan purified and made noble by love,” and Balzac, Dumas, Gautier, and many others expressed the same contemptible views, as did, of course, La Dame aux Camélias, Basevi’s principal target.

MR: The 19th century was particularly fascinated by the sickness and death of beautiful women. As Poe put it: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”  Violetta’s death captured some of that spirit of the time; however, it was also very specific.  Can you tell us how the ending, particularly Violetta’s death, functions musically and dramatically?

DR: La Traviata is apparently the first opera in which a character dies of a specific disease, here consumption or tuberculosis.  In Italian opera, it would be another 40 years before the disease would strike again, in Leoncavallo’s I Medici (1894) and his and Puccini’s Bohèmes two years later.  The cause of the disease—the tubercule bacillus—and its contagious nature were discovered only in 1882.  In mid-century, the disease was partly attributed to heredity, but it could be exacerbated or, in some accounts, even brought about by an unhealthy lifestyle, including alcohol and especially, as an 1852 medical treatise warns, “the unnatural or unrestrained indulgence of the sensual passions.”  And so Violetta unites both discourses: prostitution and consumption.

The most important strand in the discourse of consumption for the musical treatment is the spes phthistica, the dying person’s feeling of revival and well-being immediately before death.  In Verdi’s usual procedure for the end of an opera, the slow ensemble ends with the death of a principal character, followed by a fast minor-mode section with an additional action (e.g., Manrico’s execution in Il Trovatore) or a crucial verbal phrase (e.g., Rigoletto remembers “La maledizione”).  In La Traviata, Verdi grafts the spes phthistica upon this scheme: instead of dying at the end of the ensemble, Violetta suddenly rises, exclaiming that she is returning to life, as the love theme surges in the strings.  She cries “Oh gioia” and falls dead; the survivors express their grief in the fast minor-mode final section.  Something similar is found in the play by Alexandre Dumas fils on which the opera is based, La Dame aux Camélias, though not in his earlier novel of the same name.

MR: Speaking of Dumas’ play, what are some other major differences between Dumas’ story and Verdi’s version? 

DR: As the psychologist Gerald Mendelsohn has noted, even though the events of opera follow the play closely, the moral stance of the play and that of the opera differ radically.  In the play, we are meant to believe that the father, representing society and bourgeois morality, is correct.  At the end, Violetta is partially forgiven: “Much will be forgiven you, for you loved much”—but die she must.  But in the opera, Germont returns at the end to repent: “Ah, ill-advised old man! / Only now do I see the harm I did!” And compare the music at the end of the two works (the play included copious incidental music).  In the preface to his play Dumas fils thanks the music director for having written music that “livened up the scene of the toast [the song corresponding to the opera’s brindisi] with a ronde that was vigorous, original, brash, and then with a skillfulness ripe with feeling, he had this joyous motif come back in the third act, at the moment of Marguerite’s death, like a persistent memory of a mad life drawing its last breath.”  Marguerite may be forgiven, but Violetta, vindicated, triumphs.

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (10/17/14).