Opera: The A-to-Z of La Traviata

Fallen women, grand passion and heart-rending tragedy - La Traviata has all the ingredients of a gripping tale, brought to life by Verdi's stirring and evocative score. Let Mark Pappenheim guide you through the twilight world of the demi-monde
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A is for Alfredo, the hero of Verdi's opera, and also for Armand, the hero of La Dame aux camélias, the semi-autobiographical novel (and later play) by Alexandre Dumas the younger. Dumas was the son of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and based the novel on his brief affair with the celebrated Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis; it was published in 1848, just a year after her death at the age of 23. A is also for "Amore e Morte" – "Love and Death" – the title Verdi originally wanted to give to his opera, before conceding to the censors' demands and substituting the more moralistic one of La Traviata (literally, "the woman who was led astray").

B is for "Brindisi", the Act I drinking-song ("Libiamo, libiamo nei lieiti calici") in which Alfredo, Violetta and all of her party guests join together in raising their glasses in a toast to love, life and all its fleeting pleasures. The opera's first big tune, it typifies the empty, hedonistic world of the Parisian demi-monde – to which, it soon transpires, neither hero nor heroine truly belong.

C is for camellias, the trademark corsage worn by the call-girl heroine of Dumas's novel. The narrator of La Dame aux camélias notes how, for 25 days each month, the lady's camellias were white, while for the remaining five days they were red – before coyly adding, in what must surely be the first reference to menstruation in popular fiction, "No one ever knew the reason for this change of colour". How many opera-lovers today realise that the flower that Violetta gives Alfredo in the opera's first act – with the romantic-sounding invitation to return to her when it has faded – is actually a symbol of her sexual availability?

D is for demi-monde, the term Dumas himself invented – in 1855, two years after Verdi's opera – to describe the "half-world" inhabited by Violetta and her sisters, the "fallen" women of 19th-century French society. Two decades later, Dumas was also to coin the term "feminist" to describe his own crusades for women's rights.

E is for "E strano" ("How strange"), the opening words of Violetta's great soliloquy at the end of Act I. In its rapid flow of conflicting emotions and changing musical styles – as Violetta at first wonders if Alfredo really might be her Mr Right, before rejecting such girlish dreams of love in favour of a life of ceaseless pleasure – the scene offers a classic showcase for a soprano's expressive abilities, vocal range and coloratura technique.

F is for fiasco. Like many works in today's standard operatic repertoire, La Traviata was a failure at its first performance, at the Fenice Theatre in Venice on 6 March 1853. As Verdi wrote to a friend the morning after: "La Traviata has been an utter fiasco, and what is worse, they laughed. Well, what about it? I'm not worried. Either I'm wrong or they are. I personally don't think that last night's verdict will have been the final word." La Traviata is now probably the most popular of all of Verdi's 28 operas.

G is for Giuseppe and Giuseppina. Once a leading prima donna – and creator of the fiery role of Abigaille, the usurping villainess in Verdi's third opera and first popular success, Nabucco – Giuseppina Strepponi became Giuseppe Verdi's second wife in 1859. (His first wife, Margherita, had died in 1840.) By the time of their marriage, though, the pair had already been living openly together for more than a decade, scandalising the composer's provincial Italian neighbours and, Traviata-like, risked driving a breach between him and his beloved patron (and first wife's father), Antonio Barezzi – the man Verdi himself always called his "second father". In 1852, Verdi defended himself and Giuseppina in a famous letter to Barezzi: "I have nothing to hide. In my house there lives a free, an independent lady, a lover (as I am) of the solitary life, who has means that cover her every need. Neither she nor I owes any explanation for our actions to anyone at all..." Strepponi was clearly a sexually liberated woman by 19th-century standards, and had given birth to two, possibly three, illegitimate children by different fathers before she and Verdi became "an item" (they themselves remained childless). By coincidence, when they first set up home together in Paris in the late 1840s, it was in the very suburb, Auteuil, where Dumas sited Armand and Marguerite's love-nest in his play. No wonder Strepponi is thought by many to be "the real Traviata" in Verdi's life.

H is for hypocrisy. It has become trendy nowadays for directors to present Alfredo's father as a tiny-minded bourgeois hypocrite, even to suggest that he himself regularly has sex with prostitutes or keeps a mistress. What evidence is there of this in Verdi's score? His music reveals nothing but an honest family man, up from the country (so, no, he's not part of the metropolitan world that spawned the demi-monde), who loves his son and daughter, and soon grows to love his son's lover, too, perhaps more truly and deeply than the son does himself. That's what gives his scenes with Violetta their power: the tug between different degrees, and kinds, of love.

I is for illegitimate. Alexandre Dumas's father never married his mother, Catherine Labay. Indeed, having met her when he first came to Paris, aged 21, he abandoned her as soon as he became famous, although he always kept in touch with his son. It seems likely that Alexandre Jnr's sympathy with the outcasts of the demi-monde was due largely to his consciousness of his own illegitimacy (for which he was bullied at school), and to his passionate devotion to his abandoned mother (who had herself been a grisette (working girl) like Marie Duplessis, when young). It is surely significant, too, that when, after the triumphant premiere of his play, Dumas was asked by some friends if he was going out to celebrate, he declined, saying he had an assignation with a lady instead – whereupon he went straight home to have supper with his mother. Despite all this, Dumas himself fathered at least one illegitimate child of his own.

J is for Henry James, who knew Dumas's play in its 1876 American version, and later wrote of it: "Camille remains, in its combination of freshness and form, and of the feeling of the springtime of life, a singular, an astonishing piece of work. The novel and the play have been blown about the world at a fearful rate, but the story has never lost its happy juvenility, a charm that nothing can vulgarise. It is all champagne and tears – fresh perversity, fresh credulity, fresh passion, fresh pain. We have seen the play both well done and ill done – in strange places, in barbarous tongues. But nothing makes any difference – it carries with it an April air: some tender young man and some coughing young woman have only to speak the lines to give it a great place among the love-stories of the world."

K is for Kensington Registry Office, where Marie Duplessis married the Vicomte Edouard de Perregaux, one of her long-standing "protectors", on 21 February 1846. This being an English, civil service, it was almost certainly not legal in France. They never lived together as man and wife, anyway; and, less than a year later, Marie was dead.

L is for lovers, of which the Lady of the Camellias had legions. As Armand admits in Dumas's novel: "I loved Marguerite Gautier, which is to say that in Paris, at every turn, I might stumble across some man who had already been her lover, or could be the next day." Among the many lovers of the real-life Marie Duplessis was the thirtysomething pianist-composer Franz Liszt, who wrote to another female friend after her death, "She was the first woman I ever loved, and now she is in some unknown cemetery, abandoned to the worms of the tomb! Fifteen months ago she told me this: 'I will not live; I am an odd girl and I will not be able to hold on to this life, which I have no idea how to lead, and which I can't stand any more. Take me, lead me wherever you like; I will be no trouble to you. I sleep all day, go to the theatre in the evening, and at night you may do with me what you will!' ... And now she is dead... I know not what strange chord of an ancient elegy vibrates in my heart at her memory!"

M is for moral. "From this tale, I do not draw the conclusion that all women of Marguerite's sort are capable of behaving as she did. Far from it. But I have learnt that one such woman, once in her life, experienced deep love, that she suffered for it and that she died of it. I have told the reader what I learnt. It was a duty." (From Dumas's final chapter.)

N is for necklace. In Verdi's opera, the dying Violetta gives Alfredo a miniature portrait of herself, telling him to keep it in memory of her and, should he ever meet a "pure-hearted virgin" who loves him and whom he loves in turn, to give it to her as "a gift from one who is praying for you both among the angels in Heaven". In real life, the first gift Alexandre Dumas fils gave to Marie Duplessis was a necklace, a chain of gold links interspersed with pearls. After her death, he bought it back at auction.

O is for offstage voices, a favourite dramatic device of Verdi's, right from Manrico's harp-accompanied ballad in the first act of Il Trovatore (premiered in January 1853, just two months before La Traviata), through to the neighbourly house-to-house calls of Windsor's merry wives in the final act of the composer's last opera, Falstaff (premiered in 1893). In Traviata, Verdi puts the device to brilliant psychological effect: when, at the end of Act I, Alfredo can be heard off-stage, reprising the words and melody of his great love-theme ("Di quell'amor") at precisely the moment when Violetta, onstage, is trying to persuade herself to reject all romantic thoughts of lasting love and plunge headlong back into the pursuit of passing pleasure, it's left to us to decide whether the voice that she (and we) can hear is really coming from outside the window or inside her own head.

P is for Piave, the librettist who turned Dumas's play into Verdi's operatic text and, in so doing, helped the composer (in Proust's phrase) to raise La Dame aux camélias into the realm of art. He wrote his very first libretto, Ernani (an adaptation of Victor Hugo's Romantic barnstormer Hernani), for Verdi in 1844, and went on to collaborate with the composer on a further nine operas (including Macbeth, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra and La Forza del Destino) before being paralysed by a stroke in 1869. For the remaining eight years of his life, during which he was unable to work, Verdi contributed generously to his family's support.

Q is for quarrel. "We quarrelled; and why? I don't know: over nothing! The suspicion of an unknown lover and I, who abandoned you, today I weep that I left you and moved on... I wrote to you that I would come, Madame, to seek forgiveness and see you on my return, for I believed from the depths of my soul I should pay my first visit to this last love... And my soul hastened, after so long an absence, to see your window closed and your door fastened shut and someone told me that a new grave hides for ever the face I so much loved..." (The first three verses from Alexandre Dumas's long poem "Elegy", one of the Sins of Youth he published in 1847, the year of Marie Duplessis's death)

R is for realism. Though La Traviata was not the first time Verdi had abandoned the grand historical canvas in favour of a more intimate, domestic drama – both Luisa Miller (1849) and Stiffelio (1850) had already dealt with similarly small-scale private tragedies – it was his first and only attempt to create a truly contemporary work. Verdi himself proudly called it "a subject for our own age", adding: "Another composer wouldn't have done it because of the costumes, the period, a thousand other silly scruples..." Given that it was based on real-life events that had happened barely five years before, topicality was clearly part of its desired shock-effect. Typical, then, that the Venetian theatre management got cold feet and insisted on costuming the piece, despite the composer's protests, as if it was set at the end of the 17th century! To make matters even worse, as the opera became more popular, it soon became customary for the prima donna playing Violetta to provide her own costumes, leading to the sort of ludicrous production described by Bernard Shaw in 1890, with "Violetta in the latest Parisian confections and Alfredo in full Louis XIV fig". Unbelievably, it was not until 1906 that the world was finally allowed to see a Traviata set, as Verdi intended, in the Paris of the late 1840s.

S is for Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest interpreter of the role of the Lady of the Camellias on the theatrical stage. It was to her that Dumas later gave the original letter he himself had written to Marie Duplessis in 1845, breaking off their 11-month affair. He had bought the letter back (along with the gold-and-pearl necklace that had been his first gift to Marie) at the creditors' auction of her property after her death, and was to incorporate it, virtually word for word, in his novel. "My dear Marie," it said, "I am not rich enough to love you as I would wish, nor poor enough to be loved as you would wish. Let us forget each other, then: you a name to which you must be more or less indifferent, I a happiness that has become impossible for me. It is useless to tell you how sad I am, since you know already how much I love you. Goodbye then, you ... have too great a heart not to understand the cause of my letter, and too much intelligence not to forgive me for it. A thousand memories. AD, 30 August, midnight."

T is for TB, short for tuberculosis, but better known in operatic circles as consumption. Other famous operatic consumptives include Mimi – another poor little grisette who coughs her life away in a cold Parisian attic – in Puccini's La Bohème, and Antonia, the would-be opera singer, in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. TB has rather ceased to be the opera composer's sickness of choice since the streptomycin antibiotic was developed in 1944.

U is for "Un dì, felice, eterea", the Act I aria in which Alfredo begins by shyly recalling how he first saw Violetta from afar and fell desperately in love with her at first sight. As his passion overcomes his shyness, he sings a lyrically expansive phrase – to the words "Di quell'amor, quell'amor ch'è palpito" – that will form the opera's main love-theme, recurring at key moments throughout the work, most poignantly perhaps on the two occasions when Verdi uses it in the last act to underscore spoken passages for the dying Violetta: first (scored for seven solo strings) as she reads Germont's letter announcing Alfredo's imminent return, then again (ethereally high on eight violins and two violas) as she enjoys a false feeling of recovery before collapsing in death.

V is for Variations on a Theme, a long-forgotten play by Terence Rattigan in which he reworks themes from the Traviata story, turning Violetta into a respectable divorcée and Germont père into her "protector".

W is for waltz music, as struck up by the stage band at Violetta's party in Act I. As often in Verdi, commonplace dance music played in the background serves to highlight a key emotional encounter at the front of the stage – in this case, Violetta's fainting fit and Alfredo's confession of love.

X is for exhumation. Alexandre Dumas fils was abroad at the time of Marie Duplessis's fatal illness in February 1847 and, unlike his fictional alter-ego Armand Duval (and Armand's operatic counterpart, Alfredo Germont), did not return in time for a final deathbed reconciliation. He was, however, present (along with her last "protector", and semi-legal husband, the Vicomte de Perregaux) when her corpse was later exhumed from its original grave to be reburied in the cemetery of Montmartre. In his novel, Dumas made this ghastly scene both the prelude and the climax of his story.

Y is for youth. "Ah! Gran Dio! Morir si giovine!" ("Oh, dear God! To die so young!"), as Violetta exclaims in Act III. The real-life Lady of the Camellias, Marie Duplessis, was only just 23 when she died. Alexandre Dumas, the lover thanks to whose fictionalised account of her life and death we remember her still, was the same age.

Z is for zingarelle – or gypsy-girls – the fortune-telling disguise adopted by Flora's female guests for the first of the two Spanish-flavoured floor-shows in the Act II party scene. Was Verdi aware, in writing this music, that it was by selling his daughter to a band of gypsies that Marie Duplessis's father first set his 15-year-old child on her road to ruin? Either way, the brash, empty-headed music of these two noisily flirtatious scenes acts as a deceptively frivolous curtain-raiser to the devastatingly raw emotions to be unleashed in the following confrontation between Alfredo and the woman he wrongly thinks has deserted him for another, wealthier man. In the following act, the fake gypsies' tinnily jangling tambourines will find their echo in the offstage carnival music that breaks into the silence of Violetta's sick-room, poignantly emphasising the loneliness of her death as life – the frenetic life that she apparently embraced so happily in Act I – goes on inexorably outside.

Jonathan Miller's production of 'La Traviata' is revived at the London Coliseum (020-7632 8300) on 31 January