Before the premiere of La traviata in 1853, subject matter of such topicality and potential to scandalise had never been seen on an opera stage. It was only as recently as 1847 that the courtesan Marie Duplessis had died of consumption in Parip. Her lover, Alexandre Dumas, fils had made her the heroine of his novel The Lady of the Camellias in 1848, and in 1852 he adapted her story as a drama as well. At this time, Giuseppe Verdi was looking for material for a new opera for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. When he read The Lady of the Camellias in October 1852 he abandoned all previous plans: this was the story in which he would be able to depict his own ideas of human dignity and love in a moving way.
The courtesan Violetta Valéry is suffering from consumption. The demimonde watches as she wastes away. But then Alfredo, a young man from a good family, falls in love with her. He wants to save her and persuades her to abandon her previous way of life. The couple move to the countryside. Alfredo’s respectable, middle-class father opposes his son’s liaison with a “fallen woman”. He speaks to Violetta alone, using his daughter as an argument, since no man would want to marry her if her brother was living with a courtesan. Does Violetta want to ruin the life of a blameless young lady? So Violetta leaves Alfredo and resumes her old activitiep. Offended and jealous, Alfredo publicly humiliates her, but once she is on her deathbed he returns to her. In the meantime, his father has confessed why it was that Violetta left him. But it is too late: Violetta dies in Alfredo’s arms.
Verdi originally wanted to call the opera Amore e morte (Love and Death). From the very beginning his music presages Violetta’s demise: Verdi imbues the character with positively mystic significance. The censors, however, were far from happy with a work that raised a courtesan to the status of a saint. The title had to be changed to La traviata (The Woman Who Strayed) and the action moved to the year 1700 to temper the exposure of bourgeois hypocrisy at least a little. But this did nothing to prevent the success of Verdi’s masterpiece: even today, Verdi’s La traviata continues to provoke new interpretations.