La traviata is a drama of three characters: the 23-year-old courtesan Violetta Valery, the young nobleman Alfredo Germont who falls in love with her, and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. The opera is set in and around Paris in the mid-19th century.
The overture tells the story from end to beginning. It starts with Violetta’s delicate death theme and moves on to Alfredo and Violetta’s love theme, which is heard three times. The final rendition, played by cellos, depicts Alfredo’s unfaltering love. This is contrasted by the carefree, ornamental motifs of violins, which reflect Violetta’s attempts to thwart his advances.
Violetta throws a big party to celebrate the good news from her doctor. He has claimed that she’s recovered from tuberculosis of the lungs, from which she has suffered for nearly a year. Alfredo Germont arrives at the party with his friend. He has loved Violetta for a long time and visited her during her illness without her knowing. The friend presents the two to each other, and the happy Violetta asks Alfredo to start a drinking song. The famous brindisi to the rhythm of the waltz is the couple’s first love duet, later joined by the chorus.
When the others rush off to dance, Alfredo seizes the moment to profess his love to Violetta. The scene culminates in the love theme. Violetta turns down his advances, as courtesans don’t play such games of love. Even though she says no, she means yes. She gives Alfredo a camellia, asking him to return when the flower has wilted.
The merry guests continue their dancing on the stage until the soprano is left alone to sing her great two-part aria. It starts off thoughtful (Estrano…). Violetta is taken aback by how strongly Alfredo’s love affects her. Then she remembers who she is and moves on to the virtuoso second part of the aria, whipping herself into frenzied exhilaration (Follia! Gioire!) – love is but a folly to a happy courtesan like her. The music is cut off twice by Alfredo singing elsewhere. He is humming the love theme, which Violetta has also been repeating in her aria. The act ends with the elaborate ornamentation of the soprano’s coloratura aria.
Some months have passed. Violetta and Alfredo are lovers, living at Violetta’s villa outside Paris. It’s Alfredo’s turn to sing a great two-part aria. He begins by marvelling at the wonderfulness of love, but his daydreaming is interrupted by the servant, Annina, who says Violetta has been to Paris to sell more of her possessions. Alfredo wakes up to reality, and the fast-paced end of the aria is a declaration of his decisiveness. Alfredo leaves for Paris to manage his finances, with the audience still applauding.
Violetta tells the servants she is expecting a guest, who promptly arrives. He is Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. An unusually lengthy duet ensues. The atmosphere of the scene changes repeatedly as Germont tries to persuade Violetta to leave Alfredo to save his noble family’s reputation. She doesn’t agree to this lightly. The rhythm and key vary as Germont appeals to his daughter’s future, morality in general, the fleeting nature of love, the foolishness of youth, along with minor threats. In the end Violetta relents, revealing that she is ill and will die soon. The two finally sing the same melody. They have reached an accord and say their goodbyes.
Germont leaves and Violetta writes a letter to Alfredo, though we never find out what it says. Alfredo returns to find her about to depart. To his confusion, Violetta bids him a particularly passionate farewell, singing the love theme.
Soon after her exit, the letter is delivered to Alfredo. The tenor breaks down, but he has no chance to vent his feelings in an aria, as his father, Germont, appears. Germont comforts his son by singing gently about the beauty of their home in Provence. (Di Provenza il mar).
Back in Paris, Violetta’s courtesan friend Flora is hosting a party. Waltz is playing, champagne is flowing, and the guest are enjoying exotic dances from faraway Spain: gypsies and matadors are showcasing their skills. Violetta arrives at the party with her admirer and current ‘protector’, Baron Douphol. To everyone’s horror, the defiant Alfredo turns up, too, and begins to gamble with higher and higher stakes. He challenges the baron first to a game of cards, and then a duel. When Violetta tries to interfere, Alfredo loses his temper and calls everyone’s attention. Enraged, he declares his debt to Violetta paid off, and hurls his card winnings at her feet.
Germont provides the next surprise by making an entrance at the party. He scolds his adult son for his misbehaviour. The act ends in a grand finale, in which each soloist reflects on the confusing situation, the chorus witnessing the scandal. Violetta seems completely left alone.
The autumn has turned to winter. It’s February, and Violetta lays dying in her villa with her servant Annina keeping vigil. The doctor comes to visit, but there’s nothing he can do for her. Violetta’s frail farewell aria opens with her reading a letter she has received from Germont. He has finally told the truth to Alfredo who is now on his way to Violetta. Germont wants to come and beg her forgiveness, too. For Violetta, it’s all too late, and she says goodbye to life accompanied by fateful, soaring harmonies. She calls herself La traviata, one who’s gone astray, and apologises to the world. Her strength wanes towards the end of the aria, the melody begins to halt, and eventually the sounds of the carnival outside interrupt the dying woman’s lonely thoughts.
Annina enters and brings the good news about Alfredo’s return. He rushes to Violetta’s side, and their happiness knows no bounds. Violetta feels strong again. Together the lovers decide to travel to Paris, taking turns to sing the duet, ‘Parigi, o cara’, to the rhythm of waltz. As she tries to get up, however, Violetta realises she is too weak. The end of the duet turns into a fading farewell, with the music beautifully reflecting the finality of Violetta’s illness and her difficulty breathing.
Germont arrives to witness Violetta’s final moments. As Violetta gives her locket to Alfredo, she notices that all her pain has disappeared. A solo violin plays the love theme. The euphoric Violetta sits up and exclaims: ”Gioia!” (What a joy!) and collapses, lifeless, on the bed. The roar of the orchestra nearly covers up the others’ response: ”Oh, mio dolor!” (What a sorrow!).
Text: Minna Lindgren / Translation: Anna Kurkijärvi-Willans