Pre-performance Talk

This is the redacted text of my pre-performance Talk given in the National Concert Hall Dublin at Lyric Opera’s production of La traviata on 4, 5, 7 November 2017.


Verdi’s opera La Traviata was completed when he was 39.

It was not at all well received when it opened in March 1853 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice; indeed Verdi wrote that it was a ‘complete fiasco’ even though the critics actually liked it.

So he took it away to his farm in the Po valley, then on his travels to Paris and London; he tweaked it a bit, and brought it back, fourteen months later,  to a different theatre in Venice, the San Benedetto, at which he was not present, and Traviata has been a resounding success ever since.

My short, illustrated introduction focused on how the music of the opera both counterpointed and underscored the on-stage drama about to unfold before us.

The intention was add to some value to our shared experience of the performance, in the hope that we then left the theatre renewed and invigorated by an informed encounter with Verdi’s music.

Who was this Verdi, whose spiritual home, for just over fifty-three years, was La Scala opera house in Milan?

A full-bearded revolutionary, farmer and musical dramatist he was single-handedly   responsible (for half of the 19th century) for keeping Italian opera distinct from new styles and approaches emerging elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France and in Germany.

In Verdi operas, beauty of vocal delivery (bel canto) gave way to plot and character, so the voices of that period had to adjust to suit new physical and emotional conflicts on stage, and such melodramatic states of mind as female madness (Lady Macbeth) and pathological male jealousy (Otello).

Verdi, who was refused entry at age 19  to the conservatory in Milan which now bears his name, wrote his first two operas in his spare time, and thereafter employed no agent or manager, doing every deal or commission up front and personally.

He was a national hero, a one-man opera factory, with a long, successful and mainly happy life, starting out as a talented provincial musician and finishing up as a great maestro, the polymath and sage of Italian opera.

He wrote meaningfully for expiring sopranos, such as Violetta, distressed tenors, such as Alfredo, imperious baritones, such as Giorgio Germont, and wicked basses, always with those wonderful ensembles that were his signature hallmarks for, after Verdi, no one dared write the kind of bel canto operas that were the staple diet before his time.

Verdi put the chorus back into opera, put it centre stage in fact, as a main player, but then he was comparatively light on overtures, preludes and entr’actes.

From Nabucco (1842) to Falstaff (1893), like a huge sequoia, Verdi stole the sun from all the smaller trees in the forest.

And the majority of his twenty-eight operas (Traviata is no. 19) are still among the most important planets in our operatic solar system.

When I referred earlier to his ‘mainly happy life,’ we recalled that Verdi  had had to endure  the early death of his first wife, Margherita, and the deaths of their two infant children; he and Margherita had been married just over four years and, at age  29,  he was a childless widower.

These events marked him for the rest of his life, and parent-child relationships feature widely across the spectrum of his operas; Traviata has its own particular father-son dilemma.

There aren’t many intentional laughs in Verdi’s output and - if he was the Shakespeare of 19th century European opera - although he matched his English paragon in writing tragedy and historical drama for the stage, comedy was something for which this, the greatest of  Italian composers, simply had no flair.

Traviata is the story of the courtesan, beautiful and doomed to an early death, who falls in love with a young man of limited means, gives up her life of luxury to live with him, and then sacrifices their mutual love under pressure from his father.

The original Violetta was Fanny Salvini-Donatelli.

She was age 38, somewhat old for the part; she sang well, but her matronly figure carried little dramatic conviction.

Second time around the part was sung by Maria Spezia, young, slim, and as frail as her predecessor had been robust.

Callas sang the role of Violetta on stage sixty-three times from January 1951 (when she was 27 and somewhat overweight herself) until November 1958,  as slim as Audrey Hepburn and at the peak of her powers; this was her second most preferred role in her entire career at the top.

Traviata - it has to be remembered - was written concurrently with Verdi’s previous opera Il trovatore.

These two such utterly different works were first staged forty-six days apart, in early 1853, Trovatore in Rome, Traviata in Venice, in cities nearly 600 km apart at that time - quite an achievement in the mid-19th century.

Traviata was Verdi’s most intimate music drama; we can relate to the feelings it portrays, for  it says fundamental things about our shared human emotions in a simple, direct way.

It is a grown-up opera about contemporary life, called verismo in Italian; that innovation was then passed on to Puccini’s generation, and on into the 20th century stream of stories of romantic realism to be found in Hollywood movies and in Broadway and West End musicals; all fine entertainment, aimed directly at the heart, and it  is bullet-proof in print, in music, on stage or on a screen.

So who would want to change a single note of Verdi’s score?

To paraphrase St Paul to the Corinthians: ‘and now there remain Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, these three; but the greatest of these is Verdi.’

Finally, on behalf of everyone   involved in bringing this production of Traviata to the stage, I expressed our thanks and our appreciation for the participation of three capacity audiences and for their support for what we are trying to do to keep alternative provision of opera alive and indigenous in Dublin, without any private or public sector funding, in what are very difficult times for the performing arts in general, and for productions of such popular operas as Traviata in particular.