Monday, July 20, 2009

La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera, Part III

Now that I’m done trying to convince you to plan your next vacation to Santa Fe to see the opera, I want to talk a little bit about La Traviata as a work of art. The title means something roughly like “The Lost Woman” and is often translated as “The Fallen Women”, which makes more sense in English. The theme was considered controversial for its time. Verdi wanted to set the opera contemporaneously with its 1853 performance, but the opera house refused and required Verdi to set the opera in 1700. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the story of a fallen woman was allowed to be played out as a current issue.

The story probably had personal significance for Verdi.

Verdi’s first wife, Margherita, died in 1840 after only four years of marriage. In the mid-1840s Verdi began an affair with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi and Strepponi lived together for almost a decade—which included the time of the writing and first production of La Traviata—until marrying in 1859.

The relationship and co-habitation were a major scandal, so Verdi had first hand knowledge of the power of society’s disapproval.

Against that biographical background is set the story of Violetta’s inability to find restoration with human society. For a time Violetta and Alfredo are happy together by withdrawing into the country away from human society, but that withdrawal is not sustainable. Society, in the form of monetary demands and familial connections, finds them. Violetta is placed in a situation where she has no good choices. If she succumbs to the request of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, to break off the relationship, then Alfredo and her hopes of happiness are lost. If she does not, then Alfredo’s family suffers ruin. Within the terms of society no path is open to her restoration—as she sings “God may forgive, society will not”.

The working of the plot provides a solution, but not a very satisfactory one for the characters. Violetta is forgiven only as she dies. In a theological sense this works (I have a hard time not seeing Giorgio first in Act II as the stern God the Father of the Old Testament and then as the more forgiving God of the New Testament in Act III). The plot device also works theatrically because the lovers are reunited by the end of the opera.

Violetta’s death does not provide a solution for the restoration of the fallen to society, however, but avoids that problem. Society has no need to continue to reprove the dead, who are beyond its reach and without power to affect society.

In his own life, Verdi dealt with many of the same problems because of disapproval of his relationship with Streppone, but reached a more satisfactory solution. From 1851 on Verdi and Streppone lived at his country estate, Villa Verdi.

Presumably, those were happy years, even before their marriage in 1859, and Verdi and Streppone remained together until her death in 1897. By all reports they were happy together.

No doubt simply enduring and outliving a scandal would not make for a very interesting drama, but the problems of restoration that Verdi struggled with in the early 1850s and that form the basis of La Traviata were large overcome in life by persistence and the passage of time.

The issues raised by the opera and the conflict between a God that promises complete forgiveness of sins and a society that will not forgive are just as much alive today as they were in the 1850s. At Central Dallas we work all the time with people who have been convicted of felonies and, even when thoroughly reformed, are unable to find a job or a place to live because of their past. Like any great work of art, La Traviata transcends the particular circumstances that inspired its production and illuminates a continuing problem.

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