Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: La Traviata

Setting: Paris, usually set in the nineteenth century.

Plot in three sentences: Rich boy Alfredo falls for consumptive prostitute Violetta. His daddy isn’t happy and persuades her to ditch him for his own good. She goes back to her old life, but also into terminal coughing mode, so Pa relents and allows a touching deathbed reunion.

Reputation: Traviata was unusual for its time, partly because of the small number of leading characters (three). It has a personal intimacy which has always made it affecting; some decorative soprano singing looks back to the earlier styles of Rossini et al. Again, Verdi uses music to make his characters rounded, as in the scenes between Violetta and Alfredo’s father.

Critical reaction: This is what Verdi had to say about the first night: ‘La Traviata was a great fiasco and, what is worse, they laughed… I myself believe that the last word on Traviata was NOT heard last night.’

Classic performers: Callas was always an interesting Violetta, although perhaps not purely pretty enough for some tastes; Sutherland is more to the taste of those who like the part sung purely. Domingo has often made a fine Alfredo.

Highlights: Brindisi: ‘Libiamo’, Act 1 (a single from the Three Tenors, 1994); ‘Sempre libera’, Act 1 (used to stunning effect in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).

Death toll: One: Violetta, from consumption, but she does spend most of the opera dying.

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘It’s really the sympathy and pathos in the music that makes Traviata so great, even if the bel canto soprano tricks do become wearing.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘What I want to know is, if she’s got such a bad cough, how come she can sing for so long?’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995


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