February 15, 2015

That time Verdi made an opera about Anna Nicole Smith

Verdi's La Traviata is at once one of the most familiar and one of the least-understood operas. To many an opera-goer, the saga of Violetta Valery will seem like "a typical Italian opera". You know: a scarcely-believable plot involving a dying soprano, true love, blah blah yada yada.
Violetta Valery, er, Marie Duplessis, er,
Anna Nicole Smith. Yeah, that's it!

The celebrated conductor Anthony Pappano feels that this model has long since run its course. In an talk he gave on Mark-Anthony Turnage's 2011 opera Anna Nicole,  Pappano said:

How do you do modern operas today? Do you do Shakespeare? Do you do the great American novels? Do you do ... great literature? And the idea was not to do that, but (to) really write a contemporary opera about a contemporary subject.

Fine. But if Giuseppi Verdi could have been present for that remark and the talk that followed, he might have raised his hand politely and said, "Scusatemi, Signore. Pardon me. Been there, done that."

Because that's what Traviata was. This was an exception to the normal Verdi oeuvre. Here was no Macbeth or Othello; no Old Testament King as in Nabucco; no ancient history as in Don Carlo or Simon Boccanegra or several others; no mere fictional literary adaptation like Rigoletto.

Nope: just as Turnage chose the story of a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon, a character familiar to everyone in the audience, Verdi did........  well, he actually chose the exact same story.

Violetta Valery was based on the life of the great courtesan Marie Duplessis, a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon. Everyone in the audience would have immediately recognized Marie in the character of Violetta. Marie died in 1847, and Traviata, based on the play La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils, premiered in 1853. Memories were still fresh.

Marie Duplessis was as iconic a figure in that era as Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie. She was the woman men wanted to be with and women wanted to be, even if secretly; a woman of distinctive beauty and overwhelming charisma and presence.

In this regard, Verdi broke the mold and truly anticipated modern operas like Anna Nicole, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and many others of recent times.

As proof, compare scenes from each opera side by side. First, the opening of Act 2 of Anna Nicole depicts her hosting a lavish party financed by the elderly billionaire who supported her: Click here to view "Partay!" Now here's the equivalent scene in Traviata as Violetta, financed by a stable of elderly and wealthy admirers, hosts her own lavish "partay". Click here for identical sentiments couched in more elegant music. The similarities are significant; the differences are trivial.

Why did Verdi choose this character? Was it for the sake of launching off in a new direction? Being innovative for the sake of innovation? I would say not. Verdi's interest in the play had less to do with the real celebrity behind the highly sanitized heroine of Dumas' play and more to do with his own personal history.

For Verdi, this was personal -- and painful.

In Violetta (called Marguerite Gautier by Dumas), Verdi saw both of the women in his life. Violetta's tragic death at an early age (Marie died at age 23) brought back the painful memory of his first wife, Margherita Barezzi, who died of encephalitis, just months following the deaths of their infant children Virginia and Icilio. She and Verdi had been married only four years. In addition, the dramatic conflict engendered by Violetta living with Alfredo in the country outside the bonds of marriage was very close to Verdi's relationship with his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

Strepponi retired from a successful singing career to be with Verdi, but found him unwilling to go through with a church wedding. (The death of his wife and children had killed his interest in religion.) Thus, they cohabited in a common-law arrangement in the composer's tiny hometown of Busseto, a bastion of conservative church-going Catholics. Giuseppina found herself a pariah amongst her "respectable" neighbors. In a circumstance ironically similar to Germont's visit to Violetta in Act 2, Verdi's old father-in-law Signor Barezzi came to upbraid the composer, warning him of the consequences of the scancal.

What's more, the fact that Germont comes to love Violetta like a daughter, only to witness her death, adds another element: Traviata becomes another in the series of operas by Verdi in which a father loses a daughter, joining Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and many others.

One reason I admire Verdi as a man as well as a creative genius is the manner in which he rescued himself from the black hole of depression that struck him following the deaths of the children and Margherita. Bear in mind, in the 1840's there were no medications like Prozac; no grief counselors; no psychiatrists to treat the afflicted. A lesser man might have succumbed to depression and survivor's guilt.

Instead, Verdi became his own therapist, expressing his grief time after time in operas echoing his personal tragedies. The result? At age 80 he had recovered sufficiently to compose that most sunny and positive of comedies, Falstaff. The great man healed himself through his art.

He couldn't NOT write La Traviata. And in the process, he ended up with what we would call a "bio-pic" in the movie biz; a searingly contemporary work commemorating one of the most fascinating women of mid-nineteenth century France.

And then went back to history and Shakespeare!!

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