By Paul Kay
From zero to hero
Widely regarded as the world’s most successful opera today, La Traviata has come a long way since its 1853 debut, when it was considered a huge flop. The negative reception to the first performance was due in part to the casting of rotund soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, who was heavily criticised for being too old and too fat to believably play the young Violetta, who dies of consumption (tuberculosis) – a disease characterised by its propensity for causing sufferers to become painfully thin.
Even better than the real thing
Verdi based his opera on La Dame aux Camélias, the 1852 play adapted from the 1848 novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The young Dumas had written his novel based on his own experiences with Marie Duplessis, the most famous French courtesan of her day, with whom he had been romantically involved. Duplessis was mistress to a succession of wealthy and important men in Paris during her short life, including several members of the aristocracy, the composer Franz Liszt and, reportedly, Dumas’ own father, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Like the character of Violetta in La Traviata, she succumbed to consumption aged just 23.
La Traviata was the most performed opera worldwide during the 2015/16 season, according to Operabase.com, with a total of 4,190 performances across 869 separate productions. It also topped the charts for most performances globally in 2013/14 and 2014/15.
La Traviata has had a rich and varied life beyond the stage, providing the inspiration for several movies and lending its music to many more. In addition to numerous faithful screen adaptations, of which Franco Zeffirelli’s 1982 film is the most acclaimed, La Traviata’s plot was repurposed in the 1936 Greta Garbo film Camille, 1990 Richard Gere/Julia Roberts romantic comedy Pretty Woman and Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical fantasy Moulin Rouge. Music from the opera has also featured in films as diverse as The Godfather, In the Line of Fire, Brüno, Spectre and La La Land, while the Prelude to Act 1 was sampled by Canadian electronic duo Crystal Castles on the track Insulin from their 2012 album (III).
The opera features many songs that have become famous in their own right, none more so than the high-spirited Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici (Let’s Drink from the Joyful Cups). Sung by Alfredo and Violetta when they first meet, it is arguably the most famous drinking song – or brindisi to give it its proper operatic name – of all time. Cheers!
Photo: Callaghan Walsh