March 11, 2014 in General
Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) is the most popular opera currently in production. Verdi adapted it from the younger Alexander Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias, which he had witnessed a dramatization of, while visiting Paris. The opera tells the story of Violetta Valery, a Parisian courtesan, who falls for Alfredo, son to a figure of power and influence in the city, Giorgio. More concerned with his family’s reputation than his son’s happiness, Giorgio convinces Violetta to break off the affair. However, her fragile health is compromised and Violetta gradually succumbs to tuberculosis. Initially unpopular in Verdi’s native Venice due to poor local audience reception of soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, the opera itself was nevertheless feted wherever it was played. First performed in Italy in May 1855, it was then performed for the first time in English in London in May 1856. While the Church of England glowered banefully at its choice of subject matter, given Violetta’s status as a sex worker, and while Queen Victoria and Prince Albert did not attend performances, they were sufficient admirers of the score of the opera to have it at home in Buckingham Palace. In December 1856, it was finally performed (albeit in Italian) in France, the┬áhome of the original Dumas work from which it had been adapted. Amongst gay men, it won particular admiration during the height of the early ┬áHIV/AIDS epidemic in the eighties and nineties because many PWAs found points of similarity between Violetta’s beauty and youth and the untimely fatal disease (albeit tuberculosis) which went on kill her in the end.┬á Today, given the advent of protease inhibitors and new combination therapies, the lifespan of HIV+ gay men has markedly expanded, so the comparison and empathy may not be as obvious (except to some opera queens, that is).
Amanda Holden: The New Penguin Opera Guide: New York: Penguin: 2006.