At the beginning of 1850, Giuseppe Verdi was the most popular opera composer in the world. With his operas playing all over Europe and from Turkey and Egypt to South America and the United States, he could turn down contracts and set his own pace. This was success by any standard, and he was only 36.
The plots and settings of Verdi's early operas depicted specific historical events and people, many of whom were rulers or members of the nobility‹Nebuchadnezzar in ancient Babylonia, Attila in Italy, Macbeth in Scotland, Joan of Arc in France, the Spanish invaders in Peru. They ranged across the years from 587 B.C. to the early 18th century. All fit neatly into the established conventions of opera.
But Verdi began looking in other directions and developing new ideas about how to transform opera. For nearly a decade, he had been exposed to the new aesthetic of realism, which had swept out of France. Creative people everywhere were talking about truth and objectivity in art and were turning against historical representations in favor of square-on views of the real world around them. Verdi, always fascinated by the visual arts, admired many modernists who had taken up the realism banner. Among them were Vincenzo Vela, later one of the greatest 19th-century European sculptors, and Francesco Hayez, a celebrated painter, both of whom he knew in Milan. Far more important, though, had been the day in 1847 when he visited the studio of Giovanni Dupré in Florence. He came away awestruck after seeing Dupré's realistic sculptures of the dead Abel and Cain.
Verdi had also spent a couple of years in Paris, where he had been exposed every day to the realism that was making historical operas seem old-fashioned and irrelevant. Trying to find ways of "making it new," he had begun to consider discarding the old musical forms and conventions of the past, and soon ventured into the risky world of "unusual subjects" and "ugly" characters, both of which attracted realist artists. Luisa Miller, a devastating tragedy that Verdi composed in 1844, reflects this creative transformation. Its two main characters are middle-class folk: a retired soldier and his daughter, Luisa, living in a simple house.
Six years later, with Stiffelio, Verdi moved even further from well-tried formulas with a story of his own time. It was his first "contemporary" opera, with the action taking place at the beginning of the 19th century. Stiffelio is a Protestant minister; the members of his congregation are solid, everyday Austrians, and only two characters are tagged as noblemen. The cast would not wear "operatic" costumes. Instead, everyone would be dressed in ordinary clothing, so the characters onstage would look just like people in the audience.
Verdi scheduled the premiere of Stiffelio for autumn 1850 in the Teatro Grande in Trieste and went there to oversee the production. To his dismay, he found the censors bent on demolishing his opera. Operating as public-order officials in police stations and morals police in the diocesan offices, these censors had veto-power over opera and could order anything changed: the words, the length of women's costumes and men's beards, and the colors of ribbons on hats. In a worst case, they could close a production down, even after the dress rehearsal. Finding Stiffelio unacceptable, they rewrote much of the libretto and ordered so many changes in the settings, props, and action that Verdi swore he could not recognize the opera as his own. However, they left the singers in 19th-century clothing. On that count, the audience reacted where the censors had not‹they were outraged to see operatic characters dressed so plainly. In 1853, only a few years later (and the year La Traviata premiered), an Italian newspaper noted that contemporary settings guaranteed that an opera that used them would be "a failure as a work of art," and said that modern clothing onstage "lacked beauty and harmony of form."
Strangely, audiences had no problem with Stiffelius, the French play that had been Verdi's source material. It was being produced without protest in another theater in Trieste while Stiffelio was onstage at the Grande. But here was the crucial distinction: contemporary dress was fine in a prose drama, while opera should look like opera, historical and opulent, with "period" settings and costumes. Who wanted to see an ordinary minister and his flock on the opera stage? After all, that's what people saw every Sunday in Trieste's Protestant churches.
All this put Verdi at odds with the very people he had to satisfy, the public, who poured cash into the box office and kept his royalties flowing. But he was not deterred. His next three operas would be about a hunchback, a Gypsy, and a courtesan, all of them outcasts. In Rigoletto (1851), the embittered hunchback jester has the title role. In Il Trovatore (1853), Azucena, the old Gypsy mother, is completely outside the box, part of a despised, persecuted ethnic group, but Verdi made her the virtual protagonist of that opera. Then, taking the greatest risk of all, he decided to write La Traviata (also in 1853).
The lead character, Violetta, was based on a notorious French courtesan who had died only a few years earlier. Not surprisingly, objections were immediately raised. In that era, composers usually knew in advance which singers would appear in their new operas, and singers knew what composers were planning for them. Thus the great baritone Felice Varesi, for whom Verdi had written the title roles of Macbeth and Rigoletto, was looking forward to another fat part. But after someone told Varesi the plot of La Traviata, he wrote furious letters about this opera based on "a novel by Dumas fils called La Dame aux Camélias, in which the main character is a kept woman or common whore of our own time who died in Paris not very long ago." In another letter Varesi called Violetta "this unhappy prostitute."
Verdi was again pushing opera to the edge by writing about the contemporary scene. As if writing about a contemporary subject and a courtesan were not risky enough, Verdi ventured further into the unknown by dealing for the first time with the hypocrisy of the "respectable middle class" toward the demimonde. In his era, everyone knew that men had relationships with courtesans, but under the double standard, these women were condemned as "common whores," while not a word of criticism was uttered against the men who loved them.
Verdi's original title for this opera was Amore e morte, or "Love and death." But in his wisdom, he gave it a new name, La Traviata, making Violetta "the woman who lost her way," not a sinner, not a whore, but simply someone who took the wrong road. And he laid bare the hypocrisy of the middle class by making her a true heroine, noble, generous, and pious. The "villain" of the piece is the elder Germont, a gentleman and perfect model of the bourgeois head-of-family of Verdi's own time. Everyone alive then knew scores of men like him. Hypocrite to the core, he recognizes Violetta's goodness and dignity, but he has no scruples about wrecking her life to save his family from shame.
As in Stiffelio, he intended to have the cast in contemporary dress. But the management of the Teatro la Fenice in Venice forced Verdi to accept historical settings and costumes, and the poster advertising the premiere placed its action in the era of Louis XIV of France, a century and a half earlier. Thus a tradition was established that lasted into the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1853 and 1920, this opera was sometimes presented in integral, coherent productions, but too often, as we see in old photographs, it was given with comically inappropriate costumes. In some productions, the party scenes were set in Louis XIV salons, but the women wore gowns of Verdi's (and Violetta's) own time and Alfredo is dressed in antiquated French court fashion, with silk hose, knee breeches, and a flurry of white lace at his collar and cuffs.
The remedy: "Do it right," as Verdi would say, by which he meant, "Follow my orders."
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz is the author of biographies of Verdi and Puccini.