La Traviata in Finland

 

La Traviata, Finnish National Opera, Helsinki

The heroine of Verdi’s immortal La Traviata has never had an easy time of it, despite being an instant success when she was first introduced to the first of her audiences via the busy pen of her creator, Alexandre Dumas the Younger. In her invention, Dumas perhaps singlehandedly popularized what is now one of the great fictional tropes: the Fallen Woman Redeemed. When his novel La Dame aux camélias became an overnight bestseller in 1848, there were noisy protests from some in the literary world who felt that women who’d strayed from the path of virtue had no business being celebrated in story, let alone song.

But the song followed the story within a matter of a few years, for exactly the same reasons that best-selling novels these days shortly have the words “soon to be a major motion picture” plastered all over their covers. The book was quickly adapted as a play and performed in Paris’s great Théâtre du Vaudeville in 1852. Along with his preferred collaborator, the brilliant librettist Piave, Giuseppe Verdi immediately began work on a musical version, which he wanted to call Love and Death -- but the censors made him change the title to the more moralistic La Traviata, “The Woman Gone Astray”. On March 8 of 1853, Verdi’s opera finally premiered and (to its normally successful composer’s consternation) was a total flop.

While the conservative press was predictably outraged by the opera’s unnerving topicality and realism, not to mention its sympathetic treatment of Violetta, an independent but tragically ailing courtesan eventually redeemed by love, there were also other problems on opening night -- including singers who didn’t understand the music and an overweight soprano who was about as far from consumptive-looking as it was possible to get. “La Traviata has been a complete fiasco, and even worse, the audience was laughing at it,” Verdi wrote in a letter to his friend Monzi. “Well… I’m not worried. Either I’m wrong or they are. And I doubt that last night’s verdict will be the final word. Time will tell.”

And so it has. After a couple of years’ worth of revisions, La Traviata re-premiered in New York and London and swept around the opera-performing world within half a decade, to universal acclaim. Violetta – sister under the skin and direct ancestress to Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman and Nicole Kidman’s role in Moulin Rouge -- has outlived her detractors, and is now both the most famous courtesan on the operatic stage and the star of one of the most frequently performed operas in the entire repertoire.

Siphiwe McKenzie Edelmann will be returning to this signature role in early 2010, making her debut appearance at the Finnish National Opera in their new production of La Traviata. The world-famous Giancarlo del Monico, fresh from triumphs in New York (La Fanciulla del West, Simon Boccanegra, Stiffelio) and Paris and Madrid (Andrea Chénier), brings his tremendous talents to this production as director, and Pietro Rizzo conducts.

Performance dates are March 5, 11, 13, 17, and 24.