COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD
'La traviata'

Young lover loses his mistress for family honor

Compromised women are standard opera fare to create the pathos of a heroine who loses her lover and often her life. In this opera the loose translation of "traviata" is a woman led astray, or more explicitly, a fallen woman.

The fourth production of the San Diego Opera season opening April 17 showcases the lovely Violetta as the "traviata" that fashions a drama of passion, jealousy and redemption as the plot unfolds. She is an enchanting courtesan who falls in love with a young admirer without the social standing or wealth to keep her in a lifestyle she has reached.

Their initial encounter at a festive Parisian ball seals their fate in a bond that later loses its grip when her lover, Alfredo, realizes he is a kept man. Violetta was selling her jewels to help finance their love tryst in a country retreat. Alfredo's father appears at the villa to beg her to abandon his son and preserve the family reputation. Broken-hearted, Violetta flees back to her old way of life in the fashionable Paris salons with her former patron.

This scenario fits the razor-sharp opinion of critic George Bernard Shaw who wrote, "Opera is simply a soprano and a tenor who want to make love and a baritone who prevents it."

In defense of Violetta's betrayal of her impassioned young lover, it's fair to explain she is dying of consumption intensified by her extravagant lifestyle. Alfredo does not realize her inner conflicts of love for him and her need to be under the patronage of a wealthy aristocrat.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi sets all of this heady romance and tragic separation to gorgeous music with many of the most popular arias and duets in opera. Ever since the 1853 premiere in Venice, "La traviata" has been a staple in any opera repertory.

Based on a popular novel and a later 1852 play by Alexandre Dumas, "The Lady of the Camellias," or just plain "Camille," the work had problems passing the French censors due to its immoral content. Young Verdi a year later did not have a personal problem in adapting the play to the opera stage because he had been living with a singer for many years that had two illegitimate children.

With some help from a friendly official, the Dumas play opened to great success. It spawned the premiere of the opera version only one year later and a popular cinema film called "Camille" starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in 1936.

Dumas and his father were infamous women chasers, often trading mistresses during their escapades in the scandalous gaiety of mid-19th century demi monde Parisian social whirl. In fact, Dumas Jr. based his novel on his own liaison with a courtesan called Marie Dusplessis, the real-life Violetta. His mistress likewise died of consumption at only age 23 after Dumas had left her because he could not afford her medical needs and extravagant lifestyle.

"La traviata" ended Verdi's early period of his first 19 operas. It came on the heels of huge successes for "Rigoletto" and "Il trovatore," both written and premiered in less than two years before "La traviata" was completed.

The opening performance was a fiasco due to the miscasting of the principals. Apparently the physical appearance of Violetta was not convincing of her illness and Alfredo failed to fit the image of an ardent young lover. The production was shelved until Verdi replaced the artists for an applauded second performance.

This opera has been a regular at SDO. Probably the most memorable was the 1977 production by Tito Capobianco starring Beverly Sills at the zenith of her vocal skills. Three of the other seven Violettas singing here also became international stars. Gilda Cruz-Romo made her role debut in 1970 and went on to sing with Pavarotti, Vickers and Corelli. Diana Soviero (1979) and Anja Harteros (2004) are noted for their stellar careers around the world.

Casting for the SDO production features Elizabeth Futral who made her SDO debut in 2000 as Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Marius Brenciu, singing Alfredo and Alan Opie as his father Germont are making their SDO debuts. Renato Palumbo conducts the ensemble directed by Andrew Sinclair returning after six successful productions he staged for SDO.

"La traviata" is performed in Italian with English text over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m., Saturday, April 17 and Tuesday, April 20; 8 p.m. Friday April 23; 2 p.m., Sunday, April 25. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit sdopera.com.


Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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