Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Verdi's "poor sinner" returns: Opera Roanoke presents La Traviata

I had the pleasure of talking about our production of La Traviata early today on the WDBJ7 Mornin' Show with Neesey Payne. Here's a link to the first of our three segments.

Last weekend, our friend at the Roanoke Times, Mike Allen wrote this feature about our production, and the personal story behind it.

If you're interested in reading more about my thoughts on the opera and our production, here are the program notes from our upcoming playbill.

…that poor sinner: Verdi’s La Traviata

In more than one letter to colleagues following its infamous 1853 premiere at Venice’s La Fenice, Verdi wrote: “La Traviata was a fiasco. Was it my fault or the singers? Time alone will tell.” Time indeed did tell, upon a new Venetian production at the San Benedetto theater in 1854. Verdi wrote, “Then it was a fiasco; now it has created a furore.” La Traviata capped one of the most remarkable 18-month periods in operatic history, following on the heels of the successful premieres of both Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.

La Traviata is based on the novel-cum-memoir by Alexander Dumas fils, La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias, often called "Camille" in English). The son of the more famous author of The Count of Montecristo, Dumas fils was one of several prominent artists – others included Théophile Gautier and Franz Liszt – Marie Duplessis counted as lovers. “The Real Traviata” (to borrow the title of a new biography about Duplessis) was transformed from a poor peasant girl who endured the tragically common abuse of being prostituted by her father into “the queen of Parisian courtesans.” She learned to play the piano, became a connoisseur of opera, and collected a library which included the great authors of Europe. She died from consumption in 1847, two weeks after her 23rd birthday. Her grave in Montmartre quickly became a site of pilgrimage.

Dumas’ story owes much to an earlier French romance of a “fallen woman,” the Abbé Prevost’s famous Manon Lescaut, itself the inspiration for operas by Massenet and Puccini. Verdi found the tale of the famous courtesan and her tempestuous affair with a young artist compelling, “a subject for our time,” and entitled his original version Amore e morte (Love and Death). The story of the love affair, considered “bold and contemporary” for its frankness, and the tragedy of the heroine’s early death have the makings of myth. The “intensely human and yet heroic” title character elicited some of the greatest music for the stage by one of the genre’s giants. Verdi’s humanism, his identification with heroic and independent outsiders and rebels is everywhere apparent in his musical portrait of Violetta. An excerpt from a letter to a hopeful producer from Naples following its disastrous premiere unites these concerns:
So you like my Traviata? That poor sinner who was so unfortunate in Venice. One day I’m going to make the world do her honor. But not in Naples, where your priests would be terrified of seeing on the stage the things they do at night in the quiet.

Our new production attempts to do her honor by heeding Verdi’s wishes that Traviata be performed in a contemporary setting. The Venetian censors insisted on the title change of the opera, and out of deference to them, the producers – against Verdi’s protestations – insisted on a 17th century “period” setting, replete with powdered wigs and aristocratic costumes. This tradition continued in Italy well into the 20th century. While not setting our Traviata in the present day, we believe moving it to the art deco- and Coco Chanel-inspired world of the 1920’s & 30’s brings Verdi’s drama into even sharper focus, while maintaining a true sense of style and historicity. Regardless of its setting, Verdi’s music insures La Traviata will live as long as we human beings continue to find in musical theatre the heightened experience of emotion, vicarious feelings of passion, and that catharsis which is a sui generis virtue of grand opera.

Following the success of La Traviata, Dumas fils would write about the resting place of his “Lady of the Camellias”, in a later version of his book: “That grave now has its legend. Art is divine: it creates and it resurrects.”