La Traviata means “the fallen woman”

Remember that scene in Pretty Woman where a glorious, red-gowned, bejeweled-necked escort, Vivian, is so moved by her first opera that she bursts out in tears and an applauding fit? Well, appropriately enough, that opera was La Traviata, aka The Fallen Woman, aka The Woman Who Goes Astray. Its central character, Violetta, is a courtesan who falls in love with a wealthy man. Score five for director Gary Marshall. Good job, buddy.

(In discovering this I also found out that Julia Robert’s head was superimposed onto the body of her body double, Shelley Michelle, for the iconic poster. I don’t know why this is irking me so much).

La Traviata was composed by Giuseppe Verdi (an Italian composer already known for his operas Aida and Rigolleto) and the story (libretto) written by Francesco Maria Piave. As is common in opera, their stories are wildly romantic and tragic: we see the environment surrounding the central characters from a huge chorus, which easily shows us whether life during the time is gay or oppressive. We then see how this world affects our hero and heroine, which are usually a couple madly in love, but destined to be apart. Think Romeo and Juliet in every possible combination; parties, family pressures, and death.

It’s no wonder why Vivian loses it at the end of her Richard Gere-escorted evening at the San Francisco opera: Violetta’s tale is both a glorious and tragic one.

The opera, based on the novel La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, centers around Violetta, an escort, and Alfredo, a man of lower class than the majority of her clients.

Violetta is a famous courtesan, who keeps company with the extremely wealthy and powerful. She loves her life; surrounded by Dukes and Counts, she regales in drinking songs and lavish parties. In the opening act of the opera, Violetta greets guests in her Paris salon; they sing to their hearts’ content about love and life and celebration.

Along with the party guests is the new admirer, Alfredo Germont, who has long been in love with Violetta from afar. Though he is of a lower class than the current gentlemen who keep this courtesan in high company and immense wealth, he pines for her and wishes to take her away as his wife, not a paid escort.

An undercurrent of tragedy is projected as the group goes into the next room to dance; Violetta falls into a slight faint and asks her guests to move on without her as she rests for a while to recover her strength. She looks at her pale face in the mirror, and it is obvious she is in fragile health.

Alfredo enters and expresses his love for her: he had visited daily when she was recently ill, and is concerned for her health and the lifestyle that she leads. While she first protests that his “love” means little to her, she is touched by his sincerity and agrees to meet him the next day.

Between the first and second acts her interest in him has grown into passion and then into true love, and she has agreed to leave her escorting profession behind and move from Paris to a small country house nearby but out of the city. In the opening of act two, Alfredo sings of their contentment; “wild my dreams of ecstasy”. But when her maid confides to him that Violetta has pawned much of her jewels to pay for the country house he realizes that he is in no way able to give her the kind of lifestyle she is accustomed to, and leaves for Paris to settle some of his affairs and return, assumedly, more able to support her.

Meanwhile, she receives an invitation to a party hosted by a friend of hers in Paris, one she doesn’t consider until Alfredo’s father, Giorio, enters. He seems impressed by her manners and demeanor—she is all class and education, something high level escorts prided themselves upon being. But Giorio begs her to cut off relations with his son—the scandal caused by her leaving Paris with him threatens his daughter’s engagement, and the future reputation of his family. Her heart is torn; she confesses her true love for Alfredo. But, maybe recognizing that she doesn’t have long to live, she finally consents and, sending a letter confirming her attendance to the party in Paris, sits down to write a farewell note to her love.

Alfredo returns before she has gone, and full of sadness and tears, she sings of her true love for him, her heart broken. It is not until after she has left and her farewell note has been read that he becomes infuriated: believing a former client, a wealthy Baron, has convinced her to return to Paris and to her former profession, he follows her, intending to confront her at the same party that night.

Violetta does, indeed, enter the party with the Baron, her face masked in false contentment, making it seem like she is indeed back to her escorting ways. While entertainers sing and dance for the guests, Alfredo and the Baron gamble furiously, Alfredo insisting that he will take Violetta home with him. When he cleans the Baron out of his gambling money, Violetta takes him aside and quietly asks him to leave, worrying that the Baron will challenge him to a duel since he had so rudely laid claim to her.

In his desperation, Alfredo demands that she tell him whether or not she loves the Baron. Trying to protect her love, she tells him that she does, where he throws the money at her feet to “pay” her for her time. She faints, and the guests demand that he leaves, for he had “insulted a noble lady”. But before he goes, the heartbroken heroine sings to him, “Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore”—”Alfredo, Alfredo, you can’t imagine the love in my heart for you”.

Yep, dramatic. And heartbreaking. Especially when sung so fully and with such passion as is only seen in opera.

In the final act Violetta is alone in her rooms dying, we find out, of tuberculosis. She thinks she is to die, alone, and still aches for her love, Alfredo.

But Alfredo enters, and they reunite, finally convinced of each other’s love and devotion. Alfedo wants to take her home, back to their country life. And with a surge of energy and health, Violetta tells the doctor that she is healed, that she feels no pain.

She takes several steps then falls into the arms of her lover and, there, dies.

No wonder why Vivian almost wet her pants, yes?

When it was written, La Traviata was somewhat scandalous: such subject matter had never been presented in opera and Verdi’s critics demanded that it be set over a hundreds years in the past from when it was written to separate the subject matter from the present time. The composer was furious at this thought: in his words, the play was “un soggetto dell’epoca”—‘a subject for our own time.'”

In it he was trying to show the hypocrisy of society: in one light Violetta is loved and adored by her upper-class suitors, her class and education delighting them, and is called a noble lady. In another, she is labeled a fallen woman, one so scorned that she threatens the reputation and future of a middle-class family.

But at the end of the piece even Alfredo’s father repents trying to keep the lovers apart—he has realized that their love is stronger than any judgment to be made against Violetta’s profession.

Most critics historically call Violetta a prostitute. But the term courtesan is also used, and that in combination with her education and refinement suggests that she was an escort. There is never a presentation of her selling her body for sex in the opera, only her time being pined for by several illustrious clients and the heartsick Alfredo.

What is incredibly beautiful about this opera, and most present when listening to it, is the genuine conflict and love in the heroine’s heart. She does not judge herself for her profession, for what is there to judge? Even at her death bed, it is Alfredo she pines for and god she calls upon, her life cut short by illness.

Farewell, happy dreams of bygone days;
The roses in my cheeks already are faded.
Even Alfredo’s love is lacking,
To comfort and uphold my weary spirit.
Oh, comfort, sustain an erring soul,
And may God pardon and make her his own!
Ah, all is over,
All is over now.


  6. Verdi’s La Traviata, recorded by the Philharmonic Orchestra