When Tom Bankston contacted me in the summer of 2020 to discuss whether it might be possible to rethink our production of La Traviata in a trimmed-down, socially-distanced format, including with orchestra spaced safely onstage, I was intrigued and excited to explore that possibility. Although I was concerned, at first, that an opera where the heroine dies of a pulmonary disease might be a little too “close-to-home” for our own times, I now believe that our current experience with Covid-19 makes the tragedy of La Traviata that much more immediate and palpable. After all, tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was commonly called in the 19th-century, was a disease of epidemic proportions. Approaching the production with sensitivity and taste is essential, of course, but I believe that this story can be powerful, moving, and especially relevant to an audience in 2021.
Alexandre Dumas, fils, the author of La Dame aux Camélias, upon which La Traviata is based, used his relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis as the basis of the novel. Their passionate but tumultuous affair was compromised by his jealousy, her declining health due to consumption, and the meddling of his famous father. Although the novel fictionalized the characters, Parisian society knew very well the real-life scandal at its heart. La Dame aux Camélias became a sensation and was quickly adapted into a play, which Verdi saw while living in Paris. He was deeply moved by the story and resolved to turn it into an opera.
Dumas immortalized his Lady of the Camellias to set the record straight and, in part, to atone for his own behavior. Alfredo, the stand-in for the author, begins our adaptation on the anniversary of Violetta’s death as he commences writing the story of their tragic romance. This narrative device provides a connecting thread throughout the opera’s performance and opens a window into the historical context of its creation.
I hope you enjoy this beautiful, timely, and therefore essential opera.