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ClassicsOnline Home » VERDI: Traviata (La) (La Scala) (1928)
By James Camner
The search for a subject for a new opera for carnival in Venice in 1853 caused Verdi some annoyance. As always he took trouble to match a chosen subject with the resources available to him and eventually his choice fell on the work of Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux Camelias. This was based in part on that writer's own experience with the demi-mondaine Alphonsine Duplessis, for a time his mistress, but more consistently associated with a number of well-to-do noblemen until her tragically early death of consumption in 1847 at the age of 23. Dumas created round her at first a novel and then, in 1852, a play, and it was this that offered the librettist Cesare Piave a scenario on which to base a text for Verdi. The role of Violetta, the heroine of the title in La Traviata, calls for a singer who is young, graceful and delicate in appearance, and partly through his own preoccupation with Il Trovatore Verdi had been unable to exercise in time a clause in his contract with La Fenice in Venice that would have allowed him to dispense with the services of the prima donna under contract there for the season, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli. At the same time, but now far too late for cancellation, he had nothing good to say about the company at the opera-house, thought of withdrawing and prophesied a fiasco. In the event the work was not a success, its failure attributed by some to Salvini-Donatelli, who weighed in at 130 kilograms and could hardly give a convincing dramatic performance as a girl dying of consumption. Some felt that the tenor, Ludovico Graziani, had been given no chance to show his mettle, while the baritone, Felice Varesi, who had created the roles of Rigoletto and Macbeth for Verdi, turned to the press to justify himself as a singer, after his performance as Germont, written with a tessitura that hardly suited him at this stage in his career. A year later La Traviata was mounted successfully at the Teatro S Benedetto in Venice, when the role of Violetta was taken by Maria Spezia, thirteen years younger than Salvini-Donatelli and physically better suited to the part. Her husband, the baritone Gottardo Aldighieri, was four years later to make his operatic debut as Germont. A further improvement, if such it was, for the successful second staging, was made by shifting the action back in time to the period of Louis XIV, allowing a certain elaboration of historical costume, instead of modern dress.
The 1928 recording of La Traviata by the company of La Scala, conducted, as on other occasions, by Lorenzo Maoljoli, centres inevitably on the Spanish soprano Mercedes Capsir. Born in Barcelona in 1897, the daughter of two well-known singers in zarzuela, Jose Capsir and Ramona Vidal, she had studied in her native city and in Italy, making her debut at the Liceu in Barcelona in 1914 and continuing her career largely in Spain and Portugal until 1918. She made her Italian debut the following year, appearing between 1924 and 1934 at La Scala and performing in opera-houses in various musical centres in Italy until 1943. She made her last appearance in Barcelona in 1949, after which she taught there at the Conservatory in 1968. She died in 1949. For the recording with La Scala she was joined by the tenor Lionel Cecil, who had also appeared with her at the Liceu. The role of Germont was taken by the baritone Carlo Galeffi, a distinguished Verdian whose career spanned nearly fifty years, from his debut in Rome in 1904. Salvatore Baccaloni, who took the minor role of Doctor Granvil, later won a considerable reputation for comedy and had joined La Scala in 1926, continuing there until 1940, when he made his debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera.
 The first act opens with a scene of particular brilliance, Violetta Valery, a woman of great elegance, but a courtesan, is holding a party at her house. She is seated on a divan talking with Dr Grenvil and some friends. Guests arriving include the Marquis d'Obigny and Flora Bervoix, with the Baron Douphol. Some of those present jokingly rebuke the new arrivals for their lateness. Gaston, Vicomte de Letorieres, arrives, accompanied by his friend Alfredo Germont, a distant admirer of Violetta. She invites the company to take their places for supper and Alfredo is asked to propose a toast.  This he does, introducing a Brindisi, a drinking-song, in which all join.
 The sound of dance-music is heard from another room and Violetta suggests that her guests dance. They go through, but Violetta falters for a moment, in a sudden attack of faintness. She sees Alfredo, who has stayed behind.  He tells her that he has loved her since he first saw her, but she warns him not to think of her, since she has only light-hearted friendship to offer.  They are briefly interrupted by Gaston and Alfredo takes his leave, but he is invited to come back the next day.  The guests return and now that morning is near take leave of their hostess, thanking her for her hospitality.  Violetta is left alone and now begins to feel the power of true love, after a life of superficial pleasure.  Now she wonders whether this is at last the lover she had hoped for.  She dismisses the thought,  for she has always been free to take her pleasure where she will. Although the voice of Alfredo is heard from the garden below, she pays no heed to his declaration.
Act II Scene 1
 The second act opens in a country-house near Paris. The room is on the ground floor, with doors opening onto the garden. Alfredo, who has been out shooting, considers the happiness of the last three months together with Violetta.  She calms his overflowing ardour with the calmness of her smile, expressive of her love.  Annina, Violetta's maid comes in, returning from Paris, and in reply to Alfredo's questions explains that her mistress has had to sell all her property in town to pay for the house. He is horrified and filled with remorse for his thoughtlessness and rushes out, resolved to prevent the sale.  Violetta, returning, enters with some papers in her hands. She asks Annina where Alfredo has gone and is told that he has gone to the city, but will be back in the evening. A manservant enters with a letter for her, an invitation from her friend Flora Bervoix to a ball that evening, but she no longer has any interest in such things. Now a visitor is shown in, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, who suspects that his son has been wasting his money on his mistress. She explains to him the true state of affairs, showing him the bill of sale for her Paris property. Germont, however, insists that she must part from Alfredo, since the relationship between her and Alfredo stands in the way of a good marriage for his daughter. Violetta supposes a short separation is called for but is appalled at the possibility of the parting on which Germont insists. She explains to him the strength of her love and how she would rather die than part from Alfredo. He is calling for a great sacrifice and one that at first she is reluctant to make.  Germont tells her that love can fade and that Alfredo may change his mind as her beauty fades, and this is a more convincing argument.  Eventually she gives way, asking only that Alfredo's sister be told of the sacrifice she is making, one that will surely bring her own death.  He tries to comfort her, as she bids farewell for ever to her true love.  For Violetta nothing now remains, although Germont praises her generosity, which surely will be rewarded. She bids Germont farewell and he leaves through the door leading to the garden.  Now alone, Violetta sits down to write a note, which Annina is to deliver, making an assignation with Baron Douphol. She then writes a note for Alfredo, searching for words to express her feelings.  He comes in and she hides the letter, telling him again of her love and begging him never to stop loving her, as she runs into the garden.  Alfredo, alone, sits down and opens a book. Just as he is wondering whether he will see his father, the servant Giuseppe announces Violetta's departure for Paris. A messenger enters with a letter for him and he now learns of Violetta's decision to leave him. He is heart-broken and his father, who has re-appeared, tries to comfort him.  Germont urges him to return home and tries to offer him what consolation he can, but in vain. Alfredo is even more agitated when he catches sight of Flora's invitation to Violetta and he rushes away to find her.
Act II Scene 2
 The scene is set in the richly furnished house of Flora Bervoix. Flora herself, the Marquis, Dr Grenvil and other guests are present. She has invited Violetta and Alfredo, but the Marquis tells the company that they have now separated and she has gone to seek the protection of Baron Douphol.  The evening's entertainment begins with a group of masqueraders disguised as gypsy dancers, boasting of their prowess at fortune-telling. One of them reads Flora's palm and pretends to see there infidelity.  The gypsies are followed by a group of masqueraders disguised as Spanish matadors and picadors, victorious in the arena and in love, led by Gaston.  Alfredo enters alone, to the surprise of the company, but they soon turn their attention to gambling. At this point Violetta appears, on the arm of the Baron. She is alarmed to see Alfredo there but goes to sit with Flora. Alfredo remains at the gaming-table where he is winning. Douphol, in jealousy, challenges Alfredo in a contest, which, at Violetta's urging, takes place at the table. Alfredo continues his winning streak against the rich Douphol, who had hoped to beggar him. Supper is announced and the guests move out, leaving Alfredo and Douphol to follow them.  Violetta returns in agitation, rejoined by Alfredo. She asks him to leave and, having promised Germont that she will not reveal the true reason for her desertion of her lover, she is obliged to admit to a pretended love for Douphol.  Alfredo throws open the door and calls the others in. Reproaching her, he throws his winnings at her feet, to the general disapproval.  At this juncture old Germont appears and reproaches Alfredo for his behaviour. The young man is sorry for what he has done, while the others try to comfort Violetta.  She declares her love for Alfredo, a greater love than he can ever understand. Germont leads his son away, while Douphol offers his rival a final challenge.
 The last act is set in the poor quarter of Paris where Violetta now lives. She is asleep and seated near her, dozing, is Annina. There are various medicine bottles on the side-table. The music of the Prelude recalls the opening of the opera, a contrast to the artificial gaiety of Violetta's old life.  Waking, she calls to Annina, asking for water. It is dawn and Dr Grenvil arrives, making his daily visit to a patient who is now very near to death. Violetta asks Annina how much money is left and tells her to give it to the poor and then see if there are any letters for her.  Alone, she takes out a letter she has had from Germont, telling her that Douphol was wounded in his duel with Alfredo but is recovering, while Alfredo has left the country. Now, however, having learned from Germont of Violetta's sacrifice, he is coming back again to beg her forgiveness.  She looks at her changed features in the glass and realises that in spite of Dr Grenvil's assurance she is near to death.  The sound of carnival is heard from the street outside, in ironic contrast to the scene in Violetta's room.  Annina announces a visitor, Alfredo, who embraces Violetta passionately. Each now seeks the pardon of the other.  Alfredo suggests that they should make a new life for themselves away from Paris. Violetta will soon be better and they will live together in happiness.  Annina tries to help her mistress dress, but Violetta falls back.  She is weakened by her illness and unable to stir. She realises that death is approaching, as Alfredo, distraught, begs her to calm herself. If Alfredo's return cannot make her better, nothing will. They both lament her cruel early death that is so near.  Annina, who has been to fetch the doctor, returns with him and with Germont, who now understands his own responsibility for Violetta's approaching death.  She gives Alfredo a medallion with her likeness as she once was  and tells him to give it to his wife, when he marries, assuring them of her prayers. To the gentle sound of music associated with her earlier days of happiness, Violetta feels sudden relief from pain and weakness, and with a look of radiant happiness on her face falls dead in her lover's arms.
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VERDI: Traviata (La) (La Scala) (1928)