As many of you know, I’m recently back after a wedding hiatus. For our honeymoon, my weddin’-buddy and I went to Italy and tried to be as glamorous as goddamned possible.
Us, pretty much all day, every day:
In our swankitude, we went to an opera in Venice at an old converted Renaissance palace. Rather luckily, they were putting on Verdi’s La Traviata, which many people consider to be the epitome of Italian opera. It’s certainly one of the most famous. Whilst looking over the program and libretto, I came to the realization that the plot of this opera, like so many other operas, is total trash and doesn’t even make sense half of the time. You really go for the music. Not for the writing.
So I’m sitting in this ridiculously glamorous place, drinking champagne, watching a stunning show, looking like a dead ringer for Betty Draper, except with more mosquito bites, and except for all the other physical stuff as well, and all I could think was, “Sweet fancy Jesus, I just really want to blog this show.”
SO THAT IS WHAT I SHALL DO (WITH PICTURES)!
Before I get complaints that I just “didn’t get” the opera, I will state that the production we saw was staggeringly beautiful, the music is very powerful, and I really enjoyed myself. That doesn’t meant that I can’t poke a little good-natured fun at the plot and some of the more cringe-worthy lyrics.
Background stuff: La Traviata was written in 1853, and was very heavily based on Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s 1848 novel La Dame Aux Camilias, which was scandalous, as we’ve talked about on this blog before (because ewwwwww, grossssss, he talks about periooods).
La Traviata wasn’t the only work to be based on this book, or at least to use the same basic plot structure and tropes as La Dame Aux Camilias: La Traviata, Moulin Rouge!, La Boheme, Rent, Pretty Woman, etc. etc. all follow some of the same patterns, in which a beautiful woman of probably ill-repute meets a handsome, middle-class-ish man and despite their best intentions, they fall stupidly in love, and then someone is forced to break up with someone for their own good, and then it ends in a brief reconcilliation, upon which one of them (usually the woman) falls dead to be punished for promiscuity, except in the case of Pretty Woman in which they have a fairytale ending while rather misguidedly playing music from the big break up scene in La Traviata. BUT I DIGRESS.
Oh, and also, spoilers. Just in case you ever thought that a dramatic opera could end happily.
There’s a famous story connected with the premiere of the opera in 1853, in which the audience really turned against the main character, Violetta. The actress playing her was 38 and the audience thought she was too old to convincingly play an irresistable courtesan, the ageist bastards. Futher, the actress was a larger woman and was greeted with jeers and boos every time it was mentioned that she was dying of consumption. Dicks. Verdi did some minor re-writes, cast another actress in the role, and poof. It was a huge success.
Anyway, on to my recap of what is some seriously soap opera-y opera. All information and dialogue comes from the libretto of the opera I got at the show.
Violetta, a famous courtesan, decides to throw a party after a prolonged illness. Wow. We didn’t even make it to the first line before her fate was sealed. A courtesan? Who has a history of illness? THIS WILL END WELL.
The room in the converted Italian palace where Act One takes place.
Anyway, she pops some champagne, puts on a pretty dress, and probably ups the number on her workplace sign to say “2 Days Disease Free”.
In walks Alfredo, a sweet young nobleman who has had the hots for Violetta for a long time. Feel free to mentally cast him as Ewan McGreggor in Moulin Rouge!.
YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE EMOTIONALLY DESTROYED, YOU FLOPPY-HAIRED LITTLE LION CUB
Sadly for Alfredo, Violetta already has a sugar daddy, the unfortunately named Baron Douphol, who I keep accidentally calling “Baron Doofus”. Everyone at the party is like, “Baron, Baron, give us a toast!” but he’s a complete wet blanket, and oh my god, baron, you’re at a party. Why are you even here if you don’t want merriment?
So instead, Alfredo makes a toast in which he sings this incredibly famous song, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici“, that I guarantee you have heard before. Alfredo is really, really unsubtle about what he’s interested in.
“Let’s drink from these cups/ adorned with flowers,/ to the fleeting hours/ of pleasure./ Let’s drink to love’s gentle throbbing,/ that pierces the heart/ with all its power/ Let’s drink to love’s/ warm kisses/ flowing from these cups.”
Violetta is all like, “Bro, all that love bullshit is work for me. That is my JOB. Why do you have to bring up work at a party? Can’t we just enjoy getting drunk for a while? Also, nevah gonna happen.” And Alfredo is all like, “But love?” and she’s all like, “But fun!” and the guests are all like, “BOOOOOOOZE! Also, waltzing!”
I don’t really know where Baron Doofus is at this point, but he’s made a fatal flaw in securing his floozy: he’s a total buzzkill when she just wants to have fun and allows a fresh-faced stud muffin to croon tender words at her. Then he buggers off to go dance in the other room while Violetta suffers from the Incurable Cough of Death, leaving her and Alfredo alone to get cozy.
Alfredo goes, “You’re not dying, are you baby?” And she goes, “No, of course not . . .” while she quietly resets her “__ Days Disease Free” sign back to zero.
Alfredo admonishes her to take better care of herself and says that if she were his woman, he would bring her chicken soup and give her foot massages twice daily. She’s all very, “Yeah, that’s great, kiddo. Come talk to me when you’re not a zygote anymore.” So he utilizes that classic trick for getting ladies into bed, used by scumbags the world over: lower her self-esteem until she’s putty in your hands. He just exclaims, out of nowhere, that “No one in the world loves you.” When she goes, “W-what?”, he says, “NO ONE IN THE WORLD LOVES YOU EXCEPT FOR ME!”
And it totally works.
END FIRST ACT
At the start of the second act, Violetta and Alfredo have been living in sin in her country house for the last three months. Apparently it’s working out okay for them, but that’s probably because Alfredo has reduced her to a pile of trembling rubble with the power of his ego. Direct quotation from the lyrics:
“Three months have now passed since/ my beloved Violette gave up that luxury/ and glitter she was accustomed/ to, as well as the gay festivities where/ men were captives of her beauty./ Yet, she is content in this idyllic place/ living only for me.”
Alfredo: God’s gift to terminally ill call girls everywhere.
The intimate stage for Act Two, where the audience was actually immersed in their love shack.
My fantastic position right next to the four-piece orchestra.
Violetta’s maid, Annina arrives and tells Alfredo that Violetta has instructed her to sell off all of her fancy courtesan stuff in Paris in order to pay for her new life with Alfredo in the country. I would kindly like to redirect Violetta to the song “Money” from Cabaret. Your love affair is going to get a lot less idyllic when you can’t make rent.
Alfredo, sickened by this news, immediately rushes back to Paris to take care of their financial issues. How he will do that, or with what money, I’m sure I don’t know. If things weren’t about to go horribly wrong for them, they totally would have lip-synched to Sonny and Cher in the bathroom mirror that night.
Violetta comes in all sunshine and roses and domestic bliss, only to have her good mood permanently shot to shit by Alfredo’s father showing up. His father goes, “SUCCUBUS! How daaaaaaaare you steal all my son’s money!” And she bitch-slaps him with all of her bills, saying, “Uhh, no, dude, I’m the one who has bankrupted myself so we could bang in the fresh air for twelve weeks straight. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
He looks at her bills and thinks there is something shady going on, like she’s on the lam from someone. He says, “You intend to sell all your possessions?/ Ah, but why?/ Does your past haunt you?”
Violetta, in a shocking 180 degree turn from her unstoppable hedonism in the last act, says “Since I love Alfredo, the past no longer/ exists. God has forgiven me.”
Alfredo’s father instantly believes her and, like other douchebags the world over, uses her vulnerable state to get what he wants. He goes, “Wow, that is so amazing and so great! Look how happy I am for you–I’m crying! No need to check that these tears are legit. Hey, totally changing the subject, I need you to sacrifice all of your happiness for Alfredo, okay? Well, not so much Alfredo himself, but rather for his family. Who hated you up until this moment. Who you have no real connection to. Who is currently trying to make their problems your problems.”
Violetta seems to have forgotten that she has the power to say yes or no to any damn thing she wants. Instead, she takes her ‘sacrifice’ as a given, before she even knows what that sacrifice is. Alfredo’s father says that he has a pure and beautiful daughter who is about to get married, but her fiancé has given her an ultimatum: her brother needs to give up his love affair with Violetta or he will refuse to marry Alfredo’s sister.
Wow, this opera is populated by total twat-waffles. I think Violetta and Alfredo’s sister should go start their own commune. Alfredo can come, too, if he gets over himself.
Alfredo’s father makes it painfully clear that because his daughter is pure, and Violetta is not, his daughter’s life and happiness are inherently worth more. Ah, nineteenth-century morality and gender stereotypes. You’re always with me. Even on honeymoon.
Violetta goes, “No big sweat. I’ll give up Alfredo until after the wedding.” Alfredo’s father says, “Could you just . . . like . . . give him up forever, though? That would be so much more convenient for us.”
Violetta lays a smackdown: “I have no relatives, I gave up all of my friends, all of my money, my whole lifestyle for Alfredo, and I am DYING of consumption. And now you want me to give up the one good thing I have left, and die alone?”
He says, “Yeah, that’d be great.” She refuses, so he pulls maybe the douche-baggiest of all moves in the opera: he says, “1.) He’ll get tired of you, and 2.) Your love isn’t as valid, because you’re a whore and you are entitled to nothing from Alfredo.” The exact lyrics are, “But remember that man is fickle/ Some day, when his passions have/ faded, and weariness and boredom/ sets in, then what? Think about it./ Remember that your relationship/ has not been blessed/ by Heaven.”
And it works. Violetta says, “Tell the young woman, so beautiful/ and pure, than an unfortuante woman,/ crushed by despair, makes a sacrifice for/ her to be happy, and then will die!”
Well, that escalated quickly.
So then they get together and plan how best to break Alfredo’s heart, since they know that he will just follow Violetta around forever if she doesn’t drive him away. They decide she will tell him that she no longer loves him, is bored by their life together in the country, and is leaving him for Baron Doofus. She begs Alfredo’s father to let Alfredo know, after she has died, the terrible sacrifice she has made for him.
Alfredo’s father is like, “Will do! Thanks so much, you’re like a daughter to me now! Well, not really, since my pure angel rosebud daughter would never be a prostitute, but still! You’re like a distant cousin by marriage who I’m okay with!”
Alfredo comes back in as she is writing her farewell letter to him (what, he’s back from Paris already? He left 20 minutes ago), and rolls in all smoooov, like, “Baby, wassup? Miss me?”
Violetta has an enormous freak out, but thankfully her freak out is set to one of the most gorgeous–if brief–pieces of music ever written. She basically screams, “LOVE ME, ALFREDO!” and then bolts out the door, much to his reasonable confusion.
Here are a few links to the piece of music. The first is from an actual Italian opera that looks AMAZING (it starts in earnest around 1:14). The second is the clip from Pretty Woman where they actually go see La Traviata (it starts around 0:30), and the last is the final scene from Pretty Woman that uses a slightly longer cut of this song despite its really mismatched thematic significance.
Alfredo totally misreads the situation and says [verbatim] “Ah, that dear heart lives only for my love!” Yes, Alfredo. That’s why she was crying, begging you to love her, and then ran off. Nothing else could possibly be going on. Literally ten seconds later, a messenger knocks on the door with a note for Alfredo that “a lady in a carriage” asked him to deliver.
Jesus, the people in this opera move fast. She only dashed out the door fifteen seconds previously! She hadn’t even packed or finished writing her letter to him. If you told me she had already relocated to Paris, gotten married, and born three children, I’d believe you. The letter says she’s leaving him and he burst into tears. Creepily, his father appears in the doorway again (what, did you also make a return journey to Paris and back in defiance of the laws of time and space, too? Or have you just been lurking in the garden?).
He comforts Alfredo, but Alfredo ain’t interested in comfortin’. Alfredo’s interested in revenging.
He sees an invitation for a party in Paris on Violetta’s desk and thinks, “But of course! She must have gone directly to that party! That will be the perfect time to have a mature and candid discussion with her on the nature of our relationship.”
In the next scene, Violetta IS, in fact, at the party. Because nothing mends a broken heart like a vigorous waltz. Or maybe she just needs to make rent and is scouting out new clients. I don’t know. She gets back with Baron Doofus, who apparently didn’t even notice that she was gone for three months. Unfortunately, they run into Alfredo who is absolutely KILLING at the gambling tables. Drunk on his own swiggity-swag, he stuffs every conceivable pocket with money and declares that he’s going to take Violetta home with him.
Ahh, consent. A mere speedbump on the road to true romance.
Violetta manages to get Alfredo alone and tells him that she loves the Baron and that it’s dangerous for him to provoke the Baron so. Alfredo instantly sees this as a challenge to his masculinity, because he’s 12. He goes, “OH, ‘dangerous’, huh? I’ll show you dangerous! I’ll duel him!” Violetta goes, “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” but Alfredo’s not done! Oh no!
He gathers all the party guests around, throws money at Violetta’s feet, and says this pretty much verbatim:
It completely kills the party, as only the trashiest of public breakups can do. Everyone in the opera, including Alfredo’s father who is at the party, too, for some inexplicable reason, goes, “Wow. What a dick move, Alfredo.”
END SECOND ACT
In the third act, Violetta is dying. For someone who’s dying lungs-first, she sure manages to sustain some powerful notes. She gets a letter from Alfredo’s father saying that Alfredo and that poor, confused schmuck, Baron Doofus, had a duel. Alfredo is fine, but the Baron was slightly wounded. I just picture him sitting at home, bandaged and nonplussed, thinking, “How in the hell did this happen?”
Seriously, guys. Your relationship is starting to have collateral damage. GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER.
The incredibly opulent ceiling in Violetta’s bedroom during Act Three.
Violetta’s bed and vanity table, right next to the orchestra.
Not going to lie–I was pretty creeped out by the painting of the Virgin Mary above Violetta’s bed. Come on, Violetta, you’re a courtesan! This is where the magic happens!
Alfredo’s father also says that he has informed Alfredo of Violetta’s sacrifice for their family and is sending Alfredo to her before she dies. I mean, his father could have told him BEFORE he shot someone, but whatever. We’re in a world where Verdi is God, and shit don’t make sense.
Alfredo rushes into her room and they have a totally disgusting reunion. She claims that she is “rejuvinated” by his presence and wants to go out partying. Dammit, Violetta! What have I told you about relying on homeopathy? That’s just a placebo effect!
Alfredo’s father, who is the WORST COCK-BLOCK IN THE WORLD, bursts into her bedroom, too. Dammit, guy, can’t they have a moment of privacy without you showing up univited everywhere? His father “embraces Violetta as his own child” and gives his blessing for their relationship. Alfredo is like, “A little late, Dad. She’s on her deathbed.” His father goes, “Whoops. Miscalculated that one.”
Violetta, who has been alternatingly swooning in pain and bounding out of bed with renewed energy, finally stands up and says, “Hey! I don’t feel any pain anymore! I’m cured!”
She falls down dead.