New year, new format. From now on we will no longer be centering the discussion around any particular production, because we could have watched several different versions of the same opera to discuss it. While we might involve specifics about a production we’ve seen, we’re going to be talking about the story, characters and how they still have relevance to us today, rather than individual performances or stagings.
We’re starting with Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, “The Fallen Woman”, which is based on La Dame aux camélias a mid-19th Century novel-turned-play by Alexandre Dumas Jr. The libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave and its initial performance happened at La Fenice in Venice in 1853.
La Traviata is the tragic love story of Violetta Valéry, a glamorous Parisian courtesan, and Alfredo Germont, a young man who falls in love with her. They leave the high life behind for a simpler life in the country, until Alfredo’s father Giorgio one day arrives to beg her to relinquish her love for Alfredo so that Alfredo’s sister’s chances of finding a good husband won’t be impeded by Violetta’s reputation and association with the Germont family.
The versions we’re basing this discussion on are Royal Opera House’s 2009 production, starring Renée Fleming and Joseph Calleja; Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production from 2012, starring Emma Matthews and Gianluca Terranova; and English National Opera’s 2015 English language production, starring Elizabeth Zharoff and Ben Johnson.
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
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Francis: It feels a little too late in the month to wish people a happy new year, but happy new year?
Traxy: Happy new year! Should we get straight to it?
F: For sure. I guess we should say a few words about the different productions we’ve seen, even though the focus ain’t going to be the productions themselves anymore.
T: Not as such, no.
F: The oldest one is from 2009. It’s a sumptuous period piece from the Royal Opera House, with different sets and clothing appropriate for the mid-19th Century setting, and it has your favorite tenor as Alfredo. Thoughts?
T: I do love me a period drama. Renée Fleming was incredible and yeah, you won’t catch me complaining about Joseph Calleja as Alfredo any time soon!
F: Figured as much. They had great chemistry, and the scene where they part was heartbreaking. That’s how it’s done.
T: Yeah, I really liked it. It was beautifully staged.
F: The 2012 version was under the starry Australian skies, the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour by Opera Australia. A gray stage in the shape of a square with some Escher style stairs around it, and a big crystal chandelier above. It’s austere and the clothes look more 1950s than 1850s.
T: Emma Matthews, I mean, what a voice! And how she sings about soaring while hanging from a kind of bejeweled basket or whatchamacallit below the chandelier. I enjoyed that. I found it very touching when Germont the elder consoled Germont the younger.
F: You liked Gianluca Terranova too, though, right?
T: Absolutely. It got a bit amusing when Alfredo was called a “headstrong boy” and Violetta a “foolish girl” or something like that, because both singers definitely seemed like they were in their 40s – which they were, I looked it up. They looked a little too old to act like impulsive 20-year-olds – plus, the woman who Violetta was originally based on died when she was something like 21.
F: Guess I’m used to the age discrepancies between roles and performers. Look at the first one.
T: What about it?
F: Calleja was 30 at the time.
T: Young enough to be believable as “young man”.
F: Fleming was 50.
T: Fifty?! Five zero?!
T: No! Are you sure?
T: That can’t be right.
F: That’s what the internet says.
T: I didn’t think she was that much older than him.
F: Neither did I. Not by a long shot.
T: It does, however, explain why I thought Violetta was more of a cougar type person. Like, her being the more mature and experienced woman and Alfredo being younger and more naive.
F: If that’s your first experience of La Traviata, yeah, I can see why you’d think that.
T: Well, well, well. How fascinating!
F: And nicely proving that age is just a number. Anyway. Back to Sydney. I thought they got the fireworks done early. They normally put them at the end.
T: I know! Right at the very beginning! That was a surprise. And then the single firework shooting up in the background as she drew her final breaths. That was strangely beautiful.
F: A little too blatant for me, but I could see why they did it. You got fireworks, you’re gonna use fireworks, am I right?
F: The last one is from 2015. Can’t believe it’s been eight years already.
T: And that 2009 was 14 years ago! I refuse to believe it.
F: We’re all older and wiser than we were then.
T: Older, yes, not sure about wiser.
F: The 2015 production was a revival of a 2013 production, also by the English National Opera. Unlike the other two, it’s sung in English.
T: I mean, I get why they’re doing it. The thing about ENO is that they’re trying to make opera more accessible, and translating it into English would make it more accessible to an audience who doesn’t speak Italian and who can’t be bothered to read subtitles.
F: Could you follow it without the English subtitles?
T: Not very. It can still be difficult to make out the words when they’re drawn out like that.
F: How, then, is it more accessible?
T: That’s a very good point. On the other hand, not everyone struggles with audio processing.
F: No, that’s true, but if the aim is to make it accessible to everyone they are falling short. What about the two leads, Elizabeth Zharoff and Ben Johnson? Did the English detract from their performances?
T: No. They both sung beautifully. I just can’t figure out why they made Alfredo into a cardigan-wearing bookish nerd, and why the only real staging was a red curtain. Not that I really minded a bookish nerd Alfredo, I thought he was super cute like that, but … I don’t know. Truth be told, the production as such didn’t really grab me.
F: Sometimes you get productions like that. They don’t gel with you. It don’t mean they’re badly done, necessarily, just … ah, not to your personal liking.
T: Yeah, I don’t think there was anything particularly wrong with it or anything, I just didn’t connect with it. My personal preference was the order in which we watched them. Royal Opera House first, ENO last.
F: 2009 was more traditional.
T: It was the costumes and the scenography that did it, first and foremost. Replace the cast with one of the others, and it would still be my preference.
F: I do like a traditional approach myself. Now, the aim here ain’t to linger on a specific production, or stage design, or cast, or conductors or any of that, it’s to let La Traviata itself spark a conversation.
T: Like, I’m looking at some material here meant for schools, and that talks about what would you do if you lived in that time period, and so on. Is that what you want to discuss?
F: Turn a lighthearted blog piece into something genuinely educational? Nah. Attempting to make a cheat sheet for students who put more effort into plagiarism than homework ain’t my tune. I’m talking about the way opera makes you feel. You can’t teach that, you feel it. So, for instance, is it right to give up your career for love?
T: Not the best example, is it? I mean, she was a high class prostitute. A lot of people would commend her for giving up that particular career, no?
F: Which then begs the question of whether it’s right or wrong to sell your body, but then that also feels too heavy as conversations go.
T: It’s a very big and far-reaching subject as well, we’d be here forever.
F: That too. So. Is it right to ask someone to give up on their love for another person for the sake of that family’s reputation?
T: Ah, now that’s a recurring theme in a lot of different stories. Well, sort of, anyway. Love that’s deemed unsuitable, because someone’s of a much higher social standing than the other. Like Lady Sybil marrying Branson in Downton Abbey. Not just a commoner, but an Irishman with rebel leanings. But that didn’t seem to harm the Granthams.
F: Cinderella. No, that’s a fairytale, no one’s worried about the prince’s reputation, despite him running around trying to find a woman based on her shoe size.
T: Oh, Moulin Rouge! as we have previously discussed. Actually, no, the Duke’s jealous, he clearly isn’t worrying about his reputation either, he just wants Satine for himself. Hmm.
F: Well, I’m sure there are other examples, even if they clearly don’t spring to mind as easily as we expected.
T: Wickham being forced to marry Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, to save Lydia’s and her family’s reputation.
F: How is that giving up on love?
T: Oh, was that a prerequisite? I thought we were just talking about uneven matches and trying to save family reputations. But I suppose it meant they both had to give up on loves that could still have come to be if they didn’t run away like that.
F: Saving the reputation of the family so the other sisters could still marry well, that is highly relevant for this opera, so kudos for that. Hey, we’re back on track!
T: Quite accidentally, but never mind.
F: I would ask if you would give up on love to save your beloved’s reputation, but seeing as how you’re already long married it kinda feels like a moot point.
T: Also, what reputation was there to protect? We’re both complete nobodies. What about you? Is reputation important in your life?
F: Very, although you may agree to disagree. Having a certain reputation can be both a blessing and a curse.
T: Really? In what way?
F: People tend to leave you alone if you have resting enforcer face.
T: Is that like “resting bitch face” but for men?
F: No, men can have resting bitch faces too. No, it’s when you look like you’re the kind of guy who takes a baseball bat to people’s knee caps on the regular. You look the opposite of approachable.
T: Oh. Being left alone doesn’t sound like an inherently bad thing, though?
F: It is if you want to help someone and they run the other way, because you’re also taller than most, and you’ve never been called lanky in your life. Or when people feel like they have something to prove by trying to pick a fight with you in the bar when all you’re trying to do is to have a good time with friends. Or when you go to the hardware store for drop cloths and they look at you like you’re trying to get rid of a body. Like, I’m painting a room and don’t want the furniture looking like I’ve been to a Jackson Pollock yard sale. I ain’t fucking Dexter!
T: Hah, you were so close to saying you paint houses, but you don’t “paint houses”.
F: You been watching The Irishman again?
T: No, but I should!
F: On that we’re agreed. So sure, people listen and are eager to please when you have resting enforcer face, but when people think you’re happy to go Babe Ruth on actual knee caps for them, we got a problem.
T: That’s happened to you?
F: You’d be surprised. Makes trying to find a date kinda hard at times too.
T: On behalf of everyone looking at your avatar, going “but he doesn’t look intimidating”. I mean … you really don’t? Okay, so I can’t see how tall you are or your body language through a text chat, but …
F: Spoiler alert! That ain’t a real picture of me. I’m one of those people who don’t like to put too much personally identifiable information online, which obviously includes putting my real life face on random blogs. No offense.
T: None taken. I mean I knew that already, but I thought it might be good to mention, seeing as the subject came up and your avatar doesn’t exactly scream … I dunno, Luca Brasi?
F: Point taken. Anyway. Dating difficulties aside this Alfredo did manage to find his Violetta eventually. And before you ask, she ain’t a courtesan by trade, nor does she have consumption.
T: Oh, phew! Haha! I take it there are no reputational impediments to your relationship either?
F: None whatsoever. She’s making an honest man out of me later this year.
T: Aww, that’s fantastic! I’m so happy for you!
F: Thank you.
T: The million dollar question is of course: does she love opera?
F: She’s warming up to it for sure. Like you she didn’t have it as a soundtrack from childhood, so I’ve been introducing her to it gradually. See, I got company when I watch stuff in preparation for our Opera Chats.
T: Excellent. Well, to avoid the whole personal details thing, let’s leave it at that, shall we?
F: Yeah, if you don’t mind. Let’s just say no sibling of mine has lost out on a marriage proposal due to family reputation, so it’s a moot point for me too. But the point is, some reputations open doors, some close them, locks them and throws away the key. The key, pun not intended, is to make a reputation work for you, not against you. Wish I could give examples, but it’s too dependent on personal circumstances.
T: Your own, or how do you mean?
F: No, in general. Everyone’s different, everyone’s circumstances are unique. What’s true for you ain’t true for me or anybody else. Generic advice is too generic.
F: “Don’t be an asshole.” How is that helpful?
T: Because it’s still pretty good advice. Be a dick, you’ll get a reputation for being a dick. Online you’ll probably get blocked.
F: And in real life you become a politician.
T: Or a Fox or GB News presenter. “Good manners cost nothing” is another good one. In real life you’re more likely to get people to want to help resolve your problem if you’re nice to them.
F: Yeah, you go the extra mile for someone like that, it’s true.
T: Violetta had a good reputation, which is evident when people upset with Alfredo for gravely insulting her in front of everyone at Flora’s party. Her running off to live happily ever after with him apparently didn’t tarnish her reputation.
F: Friends in high places. And she was well liked by those. You might even say she was well loved.
T: Strange times to live in, and a bit baffling for us in today’s day and age to understand. She wasn’t just well-liked, she was well-respected too. You don’t really get that today.
F: Times change, I guess, but on the other hand I don’t know anything about the world of high class luxury prostitution, then or now, so I can’t really make any comparisons.
F: We presume it’s different now, but they say it’s the world’s oldest profession. Maybe things aren’t so different as we think.
F: But anyway, I think this is where we leave it for today. I’m sure we’ll find more productions of La Traviata to watch and that gives us some other aspect to talk about. I don’t think we’ve reached any real conclusions here, but this was more of a trial run of a new format to see how we fared.
T: I like it. We just need to agree on a better angle beforehand next time.
F: I think I know just the one. We’ll have a think about it. And until then, as usual, a presto!