In its 25th Anniversary Season, Boheme Opera New Jersey presents Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata” at the College of New Jersey in Ewing on Friday, March 28 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 30 at 3:00 p.m. Coming full circle, “La traviata” was the first fully-staged work that Boheme Opera mounted in 1989, in its first season.
In addition to being Boheme Opera’s 25th anniversary season, 2013-2014 also marks the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth: October 10, 1813.
Amazingly, Verdi composed “La traviata” (literally, “The Fallen Woman”), alongside librettist Francesco Maria Piave, in just a couple of months in 1853 for the Venetian Carnivale. It’s based on a popular novel and play by Dumas called “La Dame aux Camelias” (1853). Dumas’ story was based on the great love he had for a brilliant courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who died from tuberculosis in 1847.
Until “La traviata,” Verdi (and the other composers of his day) wrote operas about grand historical, literary or biblical stories, rather than real world characters and settings. At the premiere, Verdi and Piave set “La traviata” in the present, but the Venetian censors had them change it to a 17th century setting. It was only in the 1880s that they allowed the original 1850s setting to be restored.
Today, “La traviata” is an enormously popular work. In fact, according to OPERA America, the national service organization for opera, “La traviata” was the sixth most frequently performed work in the U.S. in the 2012-2013 season, behind Puccini’s “La bohéme,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Verdi’s “Aida,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Puccini’s “Tosca.” (In the previous season, it was in fourth place.)
But at its premiere, “La traviata” was not well received. The day after its premiere, Verdi wrote to a friend saying that “’La traviata’ last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers’? Time will tell.”
What had gone wrong? Well, a bunch of things, but I think we can now confidently agree that the fault didn’t lie with Verdi’s composition. And with just a few minor revisions and a brand-new cast, “La traviata” was a great success when it received its second production the next year, in 1854.
“La traviata”’s lushly romantic score makes it a popular choice for movie soundtracks, commercials, etc. Perhaps it’s most visible pop-culture appearance comes in the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts movie classic from 1990, “Pretty Woman.” In the movie, Richard Gere flies Julia Roberts – “a hooker with a heart of gold” in his fancy private jet to San Francisco to see a performance of “La traviata”:
Lest you think the movie’s writers chose “La traviata” by chance, let’s catch up on the plot of the opera. (If you need a refresh on the movie’s plot, I’ll send you over to Wikipedia.)
Violetta, a courtesan in Paris, is holding a party, where she is introduced to Alfredo, the young nobleman who has admired her from afar. Alfredo is asked to sing a drinking song – a Brindisi called “Libiamo.” (Even if you’re not a regular opera attendee, I guarantee that you already know this song – you’ve hummed along to it in movies, commercials, etc. Don’t believe me? Give a listen:)
The other partygoers leave the room to go dancing, but Violetta stays behind, due to a coughing fit. (Those of you who have seen your share of movies set in the 19th-century probably know where we are heading with this one. And it’s not good for Violetta.) She’s been ill, and Alfredo expresses his concern, saying that he loves her. (Really? Already?) Violetta extends only her friendship to Alfredo, but she wonders to herself whether it’s possible for her to have true love and commitment. She decides that’s ludicrous and sings a REALLY great aria, proclaiming that she was meant for freedom and enjoyment, “Sempre libera.”
Fast forward three months and Alfredo and Violetta are living together in a peaceful country cottage. (Which always makes me feel like I missed an important scene or two between Acts 1 and 2.) Anyway, all is not perfect in this country paradise, because Alfredo finds out that Violetta has had to sell all of her belongings to pay for their country lifestyle. (Though why this took him three months to figure out, I’ll never know.) So Alfredo goes off to Paris to settle matters himself. While he’s gone, his father, Giorgio Germont, shows up to demand that Violetta break off her relationship with Alfredo. He says that his daughter’s engagement has been endangered by Alfredo’s relationship with Violetta, because of her former career as a courtesan. At first, Violetta refuses, because she loves Alfredo, but eventually she agrees. Giorgio is impressed with Violetta’s nobility and leaves, kissing her on the forehead, while Violetta weeps.
Violetta makes plans to attend a party in Paris that night, leaving a goodbye note to Alfredo with her maid on the way out the door. As he reads the note, Alfredo’s father comes back to the cottage, to comfort him and remind him of their family in Provence – a truly lovely aria called “Di Provenza.” Somehow unmoved by this lovely singing, Alfredo rushes off to Paris to confront Violetta.
Violetta, fast mover that she is, is at the party with another man, Baron Douphol. Alfredo arrives, angry, and proceeds to win lots of money gambling with the Baron and then denounces Violetta in front of the crowd, throwing the gambling winnings at her feet as payment for her services. Alfredo’s father arrives and his horrified at his son’s behavior, chastising him in from of the party (that was a fast turnaround!).
Again, seeming like we have gone a little too far with the fast-forward button, we start the next act with Violetta on her deathbed from consumption. Violetta receives a letter from Alfredo’s father, saying that he has told Alfredo of the sacrifice she made for his family. Alfredo is on his way to see her, but Violetta knows that it is too late. Alfredo arrives and they sing of their love, with Alfredo suggesting that they leave Paris together. Alfredo’s father shows up (because, really, what’s a lover’s reunion without your father in attendance?) Violetta suddenly declares that her pain is gone and she dies in Alfredo’s arms.
Boheme Opera’s Production
One big difference between traditional productions of “La traviata” and the one being mounted by Boheme Opera is the setting. Instead of going with 1853 Paris, Boheme Opera’s stage director, Reegan McKenzie, chose a modern Parisian setting. And instead of being a courtesan, Violetta, sung by soprano Lorraine Ernest, is a fashion designer. In updating the setting, Boheme Opera is showing us the timelessness of Verdi’s tragic tale.
The production features the Boheme Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera New Jersey’s Artistic Director. The digital sets were designed by J. Matthew Root with lighting design by Mike Voytko, costume design by Ann Ryan and choreography by Risa Kaplowitz of Princeton Dance and Theater Studio.
Boheme Opera New Jersey presents Verdi’s “La traviata” on Friday, March 28 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 30 at 3:00 p.m. It will be performed at the Kendall Hall Main Stage Theater at the College of New Jersey Center for the Arts, located at 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing, NJ. Tickets ($15-$50) can be purchased online, in person, or by phone. For more information, please visit www.tcnj.edu/boxoffice.
One hour before curtain, BONJ Artistic Director Joseph Pucciatti will present a pre-curtain talk about the performance.
“La traviata” is sung in Italian, with English supertitles.