On a lost woman

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Diana Damrau performs as Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on March 7. Photo: Ken Howard/AP

VIOLETTA in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata is one of the great tragic heroines of the western classical musical canon. She is “the lost one” of the title, lost in the conventional sense of the “fallen woman”, but more profoundly in terms of the way in which—despite her own spirit—she seems lost to happiness, buffeted by both fate and society.

The opera is set in Paris in the mid-19th century, but its theme is universal, which is one of the reasons it has become one of the most famous and popular operas of all time. (Verdi’s wonderful and highly affecting music is, of course, the basic reason.) The story is based on the autobiographical play “La Dame aux Camelias” ( The Lady of the Camellias) written by Alexandre Dumas the younger, based on his doomed affair with the demi-mondaine Marie Duplessis. The camellias are relevant because the heroine is an upper-class courtesan who is unfortunately suffering from tuberculosis. She wears these flowers with a purpose: white to indicate when she is available for lovemaking, and red when she is feeling too ill for such activities.

In Verdi’s opera, Violetta falls for the young Alfredo Germont when she realises that he has found something deeper in her than all the other brash and superficial fun-seeking men whom it is her business to please. He offers her more than vacuous appreciation of her physical attributes: he offers understanding and empathy —surely an irresistible combination. So it is not surprising that she falls for him too, rather rapidly.

She agrees to forsake her life and live with him in the country. But their brief romantic idyll is spoiled by his father, who emotionally blackmails Violetta into leaving Alfredo, telling her that this is necessary to protect the reputation of his sister whose forthcoming marriage is otherwise threatened. Alfredo feels betrayed when she goes back to a former lover and insults her publicly at a party, only to be reprimanded (but not enlightened) by the father.

When the elder Germont finally tells Alfredo the truth, it is almost too late. Violetta is lying severely ill and abandoned, and when he arrives with his father she only manages to die in his arms to the strains of some of Verdi’s most tragic music.

Of course, the plot has much more subtlety and complexity than indicated here. In particular it is a devastating commentary on morality and double standards, on the exploitation of women as sexual objects and objects of pleasure generally, on the hypocrisy and fickleness of society, and on the limited choices available to women who seek any form of independent life in a patriarchal context. The father’s role is convoluted, problematic and nuanced, as indeed it always is in Verdi’s operas. He appears as simultaneously manipulative and sympathetic—but Verdi gives him one of the loveliest arias he ever wrote to sing, so he must have liked the character in some way.

Of course, Germont’s famous aria, in which he implores his wayward son to come back to him, back to the sun and sea of their home in Provence, is only one of the many musical gems littered through the opera. There is the famous drinking song, through which Alfredo and Violetta discover their compatibility under the cloak of group conviviality. There is the wonderful theme phrase that begins the overture to the opera, and reaches its climax in Violetta’s fervent plea “Amami Alfredo” (love me, Alfredo). There is the heart-rending and musically so astute duet between the father Germont and Violetta in which he persuades her to give up her love and then sympathises with her as she reveals how much it will cost her. There is the stormy passage where a raving and ranting Alfredo breaks down as he realises how in harming Violetta he has harmed himself.

But this is essentially Violetta’s story, and the opera is really all about her, about the plight of a woman who has to battle for everything in her life in the face of social conventions, and to keep doing so with all the outward appearances of grace simply for her own survival.

It is said that Verdi took this on (after previously refusing to do an opera about a prostitute) after his marriage to Giuseppina Strepponi, a singer who was also vilified by polite society because of her chequered past. This made him more sympathetic to the plight of women who did not adhere to society’s rigid conventions.

So the role of Violetta is both demanding and satisfying for a singer. This is especially so as the opera’s success depends largely on the soprano who sings the role of Violetta, and her ability to express the required musical virtuosity but also to take on the musical challenges of this role.

Thanks to a generous friend, I was fortunate enough to watch this opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this spring with the German soprano Diana Damrau as Violetta. In the last performance of the season, she gave a riveting performance that captured the passionate intensity of this young woman’s situation in all its pathos and unwitting glory. Indeed, she was so spectacular that she even completely outshone the famous “tenor” Placido Domingo, who sang the baritone role of the father Germont.

The production itself brought out the essential elements of the plot by sticking to a striking minimalist design that avoided period details, and thereby somehow highlighted the persistence and pervasiveness of this form of patriarchal control. The stark white set, with an aggressively red sofa in the middle, contained a large clock as prop that signified implacable fatality and was used to great dramatic effect particularly by Damrau, also dressed in the same almost startling red.

Many of the party and festive scenes were so double-toned as to be almost frightening. The cavorting youth who surrounded the fragile young woman who sang bravely to suppress her coughs almost gave some scenes the terror of potential gang-rape, and underlined the darker elements of music that would otherwise appear to be about merriment. But they also brought out aspects of Violetta that are often underplayed in more conventional interpretations that focus on her fragility and helplessness.

Damrau sang this role as someone who loves life to the hilt, and will fight to keep whatever joy she can draw from it. Her coloratura voice and her expressions were by turns frenetic, tender, ecstatic, passionate, desperate, longing—and ultimately even defiant. At the end of the opera, when the audience rose to give her a well-deserved standing ovation, she bowed deeply and then suddenly, unexpectedly, did a little twirl of a dance, perhaps delighting in her own achievement.

It struck me then that perhaps the soprano was so successful in this role because she had really understood the character of Violetta and thereby, by implication, the true nature of so many so-called “fallen women”. Despite the bleakness of her physical reality, she dies with the word “joy” on her lips—a vibrant and defiant reaffirmation of the triumph of the human spirit.

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