Nicholas Carthy describes La traviata as “the perfect Verdi opera.”
Based on the 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux Camélias (The lady of the Camellias), La traviata tells the tragic story of Violetta, a high-society courtesan who falls in love with Alfredo, a young man from a respectable family. Alfredo and Violetta move together to the country in search of a quiet life together.
Because of Violetta’s status as a social outcast, Alfredo’s father demands that she leave Alfredo, to clear the way for his younger daughter to have a respectable marriage. Under pressure, Violetta returns to her prior life in Paris, but she is suffering from tuberculosis, which took the lives of a quarter of the adult population of Europe in the 19th century.
The social issues of 19th-century Paris may seem remote, but Carthy, musical director of the show, says they are easy for today’s students to understand. “The idea of a disease that kills, and a family that disapproves is not terribly far away,” he says. “There’s still the angst when you take the girl home for the first time. Will your parents approve?”
Of course, it’s the music that makes La traviata the “perfect Verdi opera.” “This opera has some of the most beautiful music ever,” says Leigh Holman, director of Eklund Opera who acts as stage director for La traviata. Even without the words, “Verdi’s music tells a story. What a foundation! Then you put the story on top of it!”
“It’s a challenging piece, and it’s at the pinnacle of what we do,” Carthy says. “It has everything in it—everything.”
That’s why it’s a great piece for the students to learn their craft, both musically and dramatically. “Speaking of teaching tools, the dramatic range is huge,” Holman points out. “They have to really dig in. Each character has an arc, and we talk about those things, we dig into those things.”
For example, she teaches the students to portray both short-term and long-term changes in their characters. “Alfredo in one minute can be furious at Violetta,” she says. “Then the music changes and all of sudden he’s on his knees and he’s saying, ‘Don’t you realize I love you?’”
For another example, a much longer-term transformation occurs with Alfredo’s father, Germont. When he first enters to demand that Violetta leave Alfredo, he is very forceful and aloof. His main concern is for his daughter’s happiness, and he shows no sympathy for Violetta.
“But then we see him change,” Holman says. “We can hear him soften, because the music changes. And after he realizes that she is dying, he acknowledges the sacrifice she is making” by leaving Alfredo. In the end, he experiences real remorse, even though it is too late to avert tragedy.
The subtle changes in the music that Holman mentions represent one of the most important aspects of the opera. Italian opera of the generation before Verdi was known as bel canto (beautiful song), in which the expression is mostly in the vocal line and the orchestral accompaniment remains simple. But from La traviata on, more and more of the expression is found in the orchestra, which can either reinforce or undermine what the singer is expressing.
In the end, Holman says, La traviata “is about two people that fall in love. It’s about family. It’s about love”—issues we can all understand. “And there’s a tragic sub-story” she adds. “Because of Violetta’s disease, we know there’s limited time, and that raises the stakes.”
Adding to the dramatic tension is how Violetta’s illness changes the way people treat her. “When she’s beautiful and feeing good, and healthy, everybody’s there,” Holman says. “We open with a ball, and everybody’s there. But when she’s not healthy and beautiful, she’s left alone.
“That’s another lesson—it’s horrible but it’s the truth.”
Holman and Carthy both express their pleasure with how the students are performing, from the soloists to the chorus to the orchestra. “They’re just absolutely amazing,” Carthy says.
But most of all they are thrilled to be back in the theater. “We work side by side every night,” Holman says. “We just look at each other and go, ‘Oh my gosh, how lucky are we?’ “
On the bill:
University of Colorado Eklund Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi and Francisco Maria Piave: La traviata. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, and Saturday, Oct. 23, 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, Macky Auditorium, CU Boulder. Tickets: cupresents.org/performance/2388/cu-opera/la-traviata/