La Traviata is the story of a woman fighting desperately to determine her own fate in the face of insurmountable obstacles. When we meet Violetta, she is throwing a party to celebrate her re-entry into the world after recovering from a long illness. She senses already that death will come soon, and she knows what the end of her life will look like: she will die alone and destitute, without friends or family to provide comfort. She has resolved to live out her last days at high speed, lost in a whirl of parties and pleasure, in a feverish attempt to distract herself from (and perhaps hasten) her impending death.
When Alfredo confesses his love for her, a door opens to the possibility of a different kind of life, and for the first time she allows herself to entertain a secret dream of love and happiness. If she gives up her hard-won independence for a life of real intimacy with Alfredo, can she dare to hope for an escape from her past?
If only it were that simple. She defiantly leaves her old life behind for a chance at true love, but the happiness she finds with Alfredo is short-lived. Financial realities intrude on their idyllic life in the country even before Alfredo’s father arrives demanding her enormous sacrifice. Ultimately, she cannot escape either death or the specter of her past, but through personal sacrifice she can find redemption and, in her last moments, some measure of peace.
In the opera world, there is an exciting movement afoot to question and re-examine the ways in which we approach the works in the canon, particularly with regard to the portrayal and treatment of women and people of color. This is important work that is vital to the survival of our art form. It can be tempting to either excuse or dismiss our beloved standards as museum pieces from another time and place, but when we look at La traviata with fresh eyes we find at its center a truly modern heroine. Violetta is victimized by her society and her circumstances, but she is no victim.
While an audience today is unlikely to find a so-called “fallen woman” acting with great strength of character and moral integrity as shocking as Verdi’s audience did, we are no less in need of this story. At its best, opera has the power to move us to empathy and remind us of our own humanity. I cannot imagine anything more timely or necessary.