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Giuseppe Verdi was to opera in the Italian tradition what Beethoven was to the symphony. When he arrived on the scene some had suggested that effective opera after Rossini was not possible. Verdi, however, took the form to new heights of drama and musical expression. Partisans see him as at least the equal of Wagner, even though his style and musical persona were of an entirely different cast. In the end, both Verdi's popular vein -- as heard in the operas Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata -- and his deeper side -- found in Aida, Otello, and Falstaff -- demonstrate his mastery and far-reaching development of Italian opera.
Verdi showed talent by the age of seven and even played organ at a local church. Around this time he was given an old piano, which he quickly learned to play with proficiency. He moved to Busseto in 1823 and began study the following year with Ferdinando Provesi. By age 15 he had become an assistant church organist and had already started composing. Beginning in 1832, he studied privately with Vincenzo Lavigna in Milan, after the Conservatory there turned him away.
He returned to Busseto and married Margherita Barezzi in 1836. Having achieved publication of some songs, he moved to Milan in 1839 and composed his first opera, Oberto. It was a success, though his next effort, Un giorno di regno, was an abject failure. Worse, Verdi's wife died during its composition. (Their two children had died in the previous two years.) Stunned and depressed, the composer struggled on to rebound with Nabucco (1842) and I lombardi (1843). Macbeth, Luisa Miller, and other operas came in the 1840s, most with great success.
Around 1847, Verdi developed a relationship with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi and the two lived together for many years on Verdi's farm, Sant'Agata, before finally marrying in 1859. In the period 1851-1853, the composer wrote three of his most popular operas. Rigoletto (1851) and Il trovatore (1853) were instant successes, but La traviata (1853) was a disappointment at its premiere, though a year later, with minor revisions, it was warmly received. After an extended excursion to Paris in 1853, Verdi returned to Busseto and turned out Simon Boccanegra (1857) and Un ballo in maschera (1859), both embroiling him in politics, an activity he was already immersed in, since he served in the local parliament and later in national parliament as senator. In St. Petersburg, Verdi's La forza del destino premiered in 1862 and Don Carlos in Paris in 1867.
Having relocated to Genoa, Verdi composed Aida in the years 1870-1871. Its Cairo premiere in 1871 was a success, but the composer then gave up opera, at least for a time. His String Quartet (1873) and Requiem (1874) showed his creative juices were still very much alive. His next opera, Otello, came finally in 1886, Verdi working slowly and getting sidetracked revising earlier operas. One more opera came from his pen, Falstaff, in 1893, which scored a stunning success. Critical opinion has it that his last three operas are his finest, that the elderly composer became bolder and more imaginative in his later years.
In these later years, Verdi also worked to found a hospital and, in Milan, a home for retired musicians. In 1897, Giuseppina Verdi died and the composer thereafter lived at the Grand Hotel in Milan, finding companionship with retired soprano Teresa Stolz. A year later, his Quatro pezzi sacri premiered in Paris. This would be the composer's last work. On January 21, 1901, Verdi suffered a stroke and died six days later.
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Composition Type: Operas
Work: La traviata
About This Work
Perhaps surprisingly, La Traviata's opening night was a fiasco. Legend gives two reasons for the failure: the generous size of the soprano (supposedly dying of consumption!) and the use of a contemporary stage setting, which was considered distasteful at the time (subsequent performances were re-set in the 1700s; the reinstatement of Verdi's original conception did not occur until the 1880s). Verdi withdrew the opera and, after making significant changes in the second and third acts, premiered the new version at the Teatro Gallo di San Benedetto in 1854. It is in this version that the opera has enjoyed its continued success.
In many ways, La Traviata follows the established operatic traditions of the 1850s. Each act is composed of smaller dramatic units made up of traditional set pieces in clearly identifiable forms (a structure known as la solita forma), and each of the three major characters is given a two-part aria (slow-fast) which displays a change of the character's mood. (For many years the cabalettas for Alfredo and Giorgio Germont were omitted not only in the theater but also on recording. By the 1980s, one verse of the cabaletta for Alfredo began to be heard in the theater on a more regular basis but Giorgio Germont's cabaletta has not made its way to most stages.) Also, like its predecessor, Rigoletto, La Traviata has a full overture -- a device that would make only rare appearances in Verdi's later works.
However, in other ways La Traviata begins to stretch, and expand upon, the mid- nineteenth century Italian norms. This is especially evident in the depth of characterization written into the role of Violetta. Formal musical concerns, while still evident, begin to take a backseat to more immediate dramatic issues. In the first act alone, Verdi takes the character of Violetta from the gregarious hostess of the opening drinking song to the intimate lover of "Un di felice" and "Ah, fors' e lui" to the wild abandon of the courtesan in "Sempre libera." In the final act -- as she succumbs to her disease and dies -- she sings only a few gasped lines, rather than the full double aria which would be found in most operas of Verdi's predecessors. The other roles are not as well defined, but Alfredo and Giorgio Germont far outstrip the one-dimensional characters encountered in most operas of this period. Although there are opportunities for pure vocal display in their arias, even these displays are tied to the character. For example, Alfredo's "O mio rimorso" shows the impetuosity of youth as he runs off to save the good name of his beloved.
Verdi's use of the traditional forms in combination with a new dramatic conviction would lead to the more dramatic style of his later operas. This delicate blend of old and new styles is perhaps what has kept La Traviata ever fresh and appealing in modern opera houses.
-- Richard LeSueur