It’s the universal elements that tend to make certain stories last for centuries: forbidden love, loyalty, prejudice, sacrifice, death. As long as we’ve been watching stories unfold on a stage or screen, we’ve been suckers for this stuff, especially love—the more impossible, the better.
Giuseppe Verdi gives us all of that with La Traviata, performed this weekend by the Nevada Opera.
Verdi’s opera is your classic boy-meets-courtesan, boy-gets-courtesan, boy-loses-courtesan love story. It was based on the semi-autobiographical play by Alexandre Dumas called La Dame aux camelias, which was about one of the most sought after courtesans of 19th century France. La Traviata, which translates to “the fallen woman,” premiered in Venice, Italy, in 1853 and is now one of the world’s most popular operas. Even non-opera buffs will recognize some of its music, such as “Amami, Alfredo,” sung pleadingly by Violetta (a charming Diane Alexander) as she takes leave of her lover, Alfredo.
In Act I, Alfredo, played by Chad Shelton, meets Violetta at a party after admiring her from afar for a year. They fall in love and, in Act II, move to a country house near Paris. While Alfredo is away from the house, his father, Germont (played with appropriate sternness by Dennis Jesse), pays a visit to Violetta. He tells her that her reputation has defamed his family, and that her scandalous affair with his son has hurt Alfredo’s sister’s chance for a respectable marriage. Although Violetta tells him her love for Alfredo has redeemed her, he urges her to sacrifice him. She finally relents, although she says she’d rather die, and writes a parting letter to Alfredo. Just then, he appears, and she leaves in an emotional confusion for a party in Paris. Alfredo then reads the letter and becomes distraught. As his father tries in vain to comfort him, Alfredo finds an invitation to the party. He rushes there—a rollicking affair with gypsies and matadors—to denounce her. Later, when Germont tells his son it was he who requested that Violetta leave, the lovers reunite. But this is a tragedy, and she dies of consumption in the final act.
La Traviata, though set in France, is sung in Italian with English supertitles. With stage direction by Kyle Marrero and conducted by Michael Borowitz, it was last performed in Reno in 2000. Its cast emotes, glares and sings with intensity. The lovers’ dramatic switch from bliss to anguish is believable as the story unfolds, and Alexander’s Violetta cries real tears as she writes the letter to Alfredo.
During a rehearsal, Alexander, a soprano living in San Diego, and Ciren, a tenor from Tibet who was originally slated to play Alfredo, said their roles in La Traviata are some of the most vocally challenging because of the large amount of singing required of them throughout the two-and-a-half-hour opera.
“Also, it’s so emotionally draining,” said Alexander. Passion, anger and emotion are nonstop features of La Traviata. The key, she said, is “finding a balance of being dramatically convincing to the audience and still sing it beautifully.”
Alexander thinks audiences have been drawn to La Traviata for so long because they recognize its characters and experiences in themselves—the struggles of love, class and family.
Ciren added that people also simply like a good tragedy. “The human being’s subject is always love,” he said. “The one thing that never changes is love, and that draws people.”