The last of the three great operas of Giuseppe Verdi's middle period, La Traviata is now one of his most popular works. Written for the Teatro la Fenice in Venice, it was first heard on March 6, 1853. The libretto, by Francesco Maria Piave, details the ill-fated love affair between a young gentleman named Alfredo Germont and a terminally ill courtesan named Violetta. It is based on the play La dame aux camélias by Alexander Dumas, Jr., which premiered the previous year.
Perhaps surprisingly, La Traviata's opening night was a fiasco. Legend gives two reasons for the failure: the generous size of the soprano (supposedly dying of consumption!) and the use of a contemporary stage setting, which was considered distasteful at the time (subsequent performances were re-set in the 1700s; the reinstatement of Verdi's original conception did not occur until the 1880s). Verdi withdrew the opera and, after making significant changes in the second and third acts, premiered the new version at the Teatro Gallo di San Benedetto in 1854. It is in this version that the opera has enjoyed its continued success.
In many ways, La Traviata follows the established operatic traditions of the 1850s. Each act is composed of smaller dramatic units made up of traditional set pieces in clearly identifiable forms (a structure known as la solita forma), and each of the three major characters is given a two-part aria (slow-fast) which displays a change of the character's mood. (For many years the cabalettas for Alfredo and Giorgio Germont were omitted not only in the theater but also on recording. By the 1980s, one verse of the cabaletta for Alfredo began to be heard in the theater on a more regular basis but Giorgio Germont's cabaletta has not made its way to most stages.) Also, like its predecessor, Rigoletto, La Traviata has a full overture -- a device that would make only rare appearances in Verdi's later works.
However, in other ways La Traviata begins to stretch, and expand upon, the mid- nineteenth century Italian norms. This is especially evident in the depth of characterization written into the role of Violetta. Formal musical concerns, while still evident, begin to take a backseat to more immediate dramatic issues. In the first act alone, Verdi takes the character of Violetta from the gregarious hostess of the opening drinking song to the intimate lover of "Un di felice" and "Ah, fors' e lui" to the wild abandon of the courtesan in "Sempre libera." In the final act -- as she succumbs to her disease and dies -- she sings only a few gasped lines, rather than the full double aria which would be found in most operas of Verdi's predecessors. The other roles are not as well defined, but Alfredo and Giorgio Germont far outstrip the one-dimensional characters encountered in most operas of this period. Although there are opportunities for pure vocal display in their arias, even these displays are tied to the character. For example, Alfredo's "O mio rimorso" shows the impetuosity of youth as he runs off to save the good name of his beloved.
Verdi's use of the traditional forms in combination with a new dramatic conviction would lead to the more dramatic style of his later operas. This delicate blend of old and new styles is perhaps what has kept La Traviata ever fresh and appealing in modern opera houses.