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The real story behind La traviata

9 November 2018
Violetta sits in a large chair.

La traviata is the only one of Verdi’s 27 operas that chronicles a love affair as its main theme. Not just a love affair but a thoroughly believable one. Violetta, Alfredo and his father are real characters, people with the same emotions as you and me, people we can believe in. What’s more, they are modern characters, living in mid-19th century France, dressed in contemporary clothes.

The character of Violetta was inspired by one of Alexandre Dumas’s lovers, Marie Duplessis. Born as Alphonsine Rose Plessis in 1824, Plessis exuded a fragile, melancholy beauty. By the age of 16, she became aware that prominent men were willing to give her money in exchange for her company and therefore became a courtesan. She also added the faux noble "Du" to her name.

In 1844, at the age of 20, Duplessis began a passionate liaison with Alexandre Dumas, the celebrated author and playwright also known as Dumas Fils. Their affair did not last long, and after their separations she took other lovers including Liszt. Having conquered Paris with her wit, charm and supreme elegance, Duplessis died of consumption in February 1847, at the age of 23. Attending the sale of her possessions after her death, Dumas purchased a necklace as a memento and decided to write a novel loosely based on their affair. 

The Lady of Camelias was published in 1848, less than a year after her death, and was one of the first works of this realistic movement. In the book, Dumas became ‘Armand Duval’ and Duplessis ‘Marguerite Gautier’. The best seller was immediately turned into a play. La Dame aux Camélias was premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris in 1852. There is no evidence that Verdi saw any production, but he certainly knew the book and also the Parisian society it describes. He lived in the city, on and off, from 1847 to 1852, not with his wife Margherita Barezzi (the daughter of his benefactor), but with Giuseppina Strepponi, the soprano that was to become his lifelong companion. No composer had, up to this time, based an opera on so contemporary a subject. 

For Venice I’m doing La Dame aux Camélias which will probably be called La traviata - A subject of our own age!

Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave stayed very close to Dumas’ stage version. Piave created an intimate and realistic libretto, which is one of the reasons that the opera continues to be relevant today.

Violetta’s death scene recalls the real life death scene of 18 June 1840, when the young Verdi’s 26 year old wife Margherita died in her father’s arms, with her husband and doctor present. The Violetta of La traviata was at first called Margherita, after the name Dumas gave to his heroine. There is no extant letter by Verdi about why he later changed the name to Violetta. He may have preferred Violetta to Margherita because daisies (‘marguerite’) are white, while purple or violet is more suggestive of the erotic milieu and decors familiar to Parisian demi-mondaines. Or it may well be that in the end Verdi could not bear to hear his dead wife’s name sung in the context of an opera about courtesans.

We will never know for sure whether it was this coincidence of the same first name that drew Verdi’s attention to the story of The Lady of the Camelias, but it likely did play a part in the creation of a musical masterpiece that has moved generations of audiences all over the world for 165 years.

The opera was first performed at La Fenice, Venice in 1853 and had its first UK performance in 1856 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. This production of La traviata was first performed by Welsh National Opera in 2009, and was directed by David McVicar. This is our 4th revival of La traviata, with Sarah Crisp returning as revival director for the 2nd time.

And there you have it, the true story behind La traviata. The genesis of Verdi’s tale of passion and betrayal, of delinquency and misalliance dates back to 1824