Detailed Plot Outline
ACT I: Paris, a salon in Violetta’s house, August, about 1850.
Before the curtain is raised, a brief prelude introduces the story. First we hear a solemn melody, followed by a more sprightly one (which will recur in a more serious context later). Just as we are enjoying this melody, Verdi introduces a jarring chord – a half-step above the tonic – that foreshadows the tragic ending which lies ahead.
The curtain rises on a party which is already in progress. Violetta greets some guests who have just arrived. Gastone enters with Alfredo, introducing him to Violetta as one of her admirers. As the partygoers sit down for dinner, Gastone informs Violetta that during her recent illness, Alfredo came to her house daily to inquire about her welfare. She chides Baron Douphol for not being as attentive as this relative stranger.
Throughout this party scene, the orchestra continues to play lively party music, while the dialogue consists of conversational lines sung to fragments of the melody. Verdi had used a similar technique in Rigoletto, which also opens with a raucous party.
Violetta pours a glass of wine for Alfredo, comparing herself to the goddess Hebe (in the sort of classic reference that librettist Francesco Maria Piave loved to use). Gastone asks the Baron to propose a toast, but still stinging from Violetta’s insult, he refuses, and the honor falls to Alfredo. Following an orchestral introduction, he begins the lively Brindisi (drinking song), a rather formal number in which his melody is echoed by the chorus, followed by Violetta’s repetition of the same melody, with another repetition from the chorus.
Music is heard in the next room, and the guests go off to dance. Violetta, however, has a dizzy spell and needs to sit down. Noticing her difficulty, Alfredo stays behind with her. He tells her that her fast-lane lifestyle is killing her, and that he alone loves her enough to protect her from herself. She is amazed to learn that he has loved her from afar for a year.
Like the dialogue in the opening scene, their lines are sung in melodic fragments accompanied by the dance music from the next room. In the love duet that follows, the dance music falls silent, not because the party has stopped but because Verdi draws us into their private world where they are focused on each other and are no longer aware of it. When this brief reverie ends and the partygoers re-enter, the party music will once again come to the forefront. (Leonard Bernstein was likely influenced by this scene. He used a similar device in the dance at the gym in West Side Story).
The duet which follows demonstrates Verdi’s skill at musical characterization. Introducing a romantic melody which will recur later in the opera, Alfredo tells Violetta that he fell in love with her the first time he saw her. In a subtle touch that suggests his initial shyness, Verdi inserts two rests in his opening line: “Un dì – felice, eterea” (“One day – happy, ethereal”). Violetta’s response to Alfredo, that she cannot love in the same way that he does, is sung to a rapid melody, containing a number of triplets (three notes where the beat calls for two), suggesting offhand laughter. Thus not only their words but the very tempo of their music conveys the difference in attitude between the two. At the end of the exchange, their voices join in duet to Alfredo’s melody, a subtle indication that she may be falling in love, but her continued use of triplets even as she sings this melody may indicate a degree of uncertainty in her voice.
Following a brief interruption by Gastone, Violetta tells Alfredo to leave, but she gives him a flower, instructing him to return when it has withered. Alfredo leaves happily, knowing that a plucked flower will wither in a day. The rest of the guests return and say their farewells. As if to emphasize the frivolity of their society, they explain that they need to go home to rest up for the next party.
Violetta is left alone on stage to consider the events of the past hour, and to sing one of the most spectacular arias in all of opera. While it follows a time-worn pattern – recitative, slow section, transition, and fast section (referred to as a cabaletta) – its content is anything but formulaic.
In the opening section – “E strano” (“It’s strange”) – she expresses her amazement that Alfredo’s words could touch her so deeply. While this section, with its conversational rhythm, could be called recitative, it is hardly the unmelodic recitative of the type that earlier composers used to provide transitions between musical numbers, but rather a dramatic form of musical speech that Verdi employed to intensify the emotional content of his characters’ expression. This leads to a slow section – “A fors ‘e lui” (“Maybe he is the one”) – in which she considers the possibility of true love, slipping into a reprise of the music he used in his declaration of love. Suddenly, however, she exclaims “Follie! Follie! (“What folly!”), saying that such love is not for her, and in the brilliant cabaletta – “Sempre libera” (“Always free”) – she declares that her life must be devoted solely to the pursuit of pleasure. But even as she does so, she hears Alfredo’s repeated declaration of love (from below her balcony, or perhaps in her imagination, depending on the stage director) as a counter-melody to her own. For the moment her desire for the party life wins out, and the aria comes to a spectacular finish.
Over the years, many sopranos have heightened the effect by inserting a high E-flat on the next to last note, to the point where some fans have come to believe that this note was part of Verdi’s score. In recent years, however, the pendulum seems to have swung back toward singing the conclusion as Verdi wrote it. Either way, this is one of opera’s great showstoppers.
Act II: Scene 1: A country house near Paris: The following January
Much has happened since the Act I curtain. Omitting the second act of the play upon which the opera is based, Verdi and Piave open the second act with Alfredo and Violetta beginning their fourth month of unwedded bliss. Alfredo enters, and in the aria “Dei miei bollenti spiriti” he describes their idyllic existence. As he concludes the first section, Annina enters in traveling attire. When Alfredo questions her, he learns that Violetta has gone into debt financing their country lifestyle, and she has ordered Annina to go into town to sell a number of her possessions. Alfredo tells her that he will go to Paris to obtain the money from his own assets. He then sings the cabaletta of his aria, expressing his shame at having allowed Violetta to get into such dire straits. In contrast to Violetta’s first-act aria, Alfredo’s aria follows a more familiar pattern in which there is an interruption, often from a third party, preceding the cabaletta.
Alfredo leaves, and Violetta and Annina enter. Giuseppe, another servant, enters with a party invitation from Flora, which Violetta immediately rejects. He leaves, returning a moment later to escort a gentleman into the room. Much to Violetta’s surprise, the guest is Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.
What follows is a remarkable duet that had virtually no precedent in operatic history, a dramatic dialogue consisting not of a symmetrical pattern but of a series of free flowing melodies, each appropriate to the speaker and the situation. Only at the very end do Violetta and Germont join their voices to the same melody.
Germont opens the dialogue by angrily accusing her of ruining his son, but her dignified reply – that she is a lady in her own house and does not have to listen to that sort of talk – disarms him. She further surprises him by showing him documentation that her money, not Alfredo’s, has been supporting the couple. Nevertheless, Germont is not swayed from his mission. He tells her he also has a daughter, whose fiance is planning to break off the engagement because of the scandal caused by Alfredo’s living arrangement. Germont tells Violetta that he is asking her for a great sacrifice: that she leave Alfredo forever so the family honor can be restored. Not believing Violetta’s assertion that her illness is most likely terminal, he speaks of her future, when, lacking the security of marriage, she will find herself deserted. Reluctantly, she agrees to Germont’s terms, asking only that after her death Alfredo must learn the truth about the reason she has left him. Tearfully, she asks Germont to embrace her like a daughter.
Germont leaves, and Violetta summons Annina, telling her to send her RSVP to Flora’s party. Ominous chords – again reminiscent of Rigoletto – establish a solemn mood. As a plaintive melody is heard on the clarinet, Violetta begins to write a letter to Alfredo. As she is finishing, she is surprised by Alfredo’s entrance. As she stammers her concerns to Alfredo, her music becomes increasingly agitated, culminating in the outburst “Amami, Alfredo” (“Love me, Alfredo”), to a slower version of the melody that was introduced in the opera’s prelude. She leaves, and shortly afterward, a messenger delivers her letter to Alfredo, and he learns that she has left him. Germont enters, and Alfredo falls into his arms in despair. In the aria “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” Germont reminds Alfredo of his country roots and begs him to return to his family, but Alfredo storms out, vowing to get his revenge on Violetta for deserting him. This confrontation between father and son, incidentally, has no parallel in the play.
Germont is often seen as the villain of the opera, but it would be fairer to see him as a well-meaning representative of middle-class, provincial values (literally: he comes from Provence) that are contrasted with the looser morals of Parisian high society. After all, as one critic has wryly asked, how many of us, even in our more liberated times, would want Violetta as a daughter-in-law? Germont’s dilemma is the inner conflict between his sense of morality and his personal feelings. In The Verdi Baritone: Studies in the Development of a Character, Geoffrey and Ryan Edwards have described in detail the ways in which Piave and Verdi humanized a character who was essentially unsympathetic in the play, concluding, “the characterization of Germont goes beyond melodramatic stereotype and cliché to explore the struggle, torment, and ultimate loss of a man compelled to play a social role fundamentally antithetical to his human nature.”
Act II: Scene 2: Flora’s house, that evening
Party music immediately brings us back to the world of Act I, only this time Flora is the hostess. She announces that she has invited Violetta and Alfredo; she is surprised to learn that they have separated and that Violetta’s escort will be the Baron.
A group of women dressed as gypsies – apparently paid entertainers – enter and perform a song and dance, as well as telling a few fortunes. They are followed by some men disguised as matadors, led by Gaston, who relate an amusing story and join the gypsies in a dance. This scene effectively creates a festive mood that provides a keen sense of contrast with what is to follow. (Lyric Opera audiences may well be reminded of the horseplay which precedes Mimì’s entrance in the final act of La bohème).
Alfredo enters and heads for the card table. Soon afterwards Violetta enters with the Baron. Seeing Alfredo, she regrets having come to the party. Alfredo hits a big winning streak at the table, but he is openly in a bad mood. This entire exchange is accompanied by a steady melody in the orchestra whose rhythm suggests the continuation of the party but whose notes and orchestration seem more ominous.
The guests go off to dinner, but Violetta returns, followed by Alfredo. She warns him that the Baron is dangerous, but he is too angry to listen, and when he presses her for the reason she left him, she lies and tells him she loves the Baron. Alfredo summons the other guests to the room, and he insults Violetta by throwing his gambling winnings in her face as payment for their time together in the country.
Violetta faints. The guests are appalled by Alfredo’s boorish manners and tell him to leave. Germont, who has followed Alfredo to the party, arrives just in time to witness the incident he had come to prevent. He denounces his son, saying that no man of honor offends a woman. Alfredo is immediately overcome with remorse. The Baron challenges him to a duel.
One thing that opera (and other forms of musical drama) can do but other forms of drama cannot is to allow us to experience the thoughts and feelings of several characters simultaneously. As Violetta comes to from her faint, the three principal characters join with the chorus in an elaborate ensemble. Alfredo continues to express his remorse, Germont laments that he cannot reveal the truth, and Violetta, possibly speaking to herself (since she cannot openly proclaim her love), says that some day Alfredo will understand and forgive her. Her voice soars above the others like the voice of an angel, and the music reaches an almost religious intensity as the curtain falls.
Act III: Violetta’s bedroom, the following month
A somber prelude, based on the first-act prelude, establishes the mood. Violetta is asleep in bed, and Annina has fallen asleep in her chair while watching over her. Violetta awakens and then wakes Annina by asking for a glass of water. Dr. Grenvil enters and offers Violetta words of encouragement, but she realizes that the end is near, a fact that he confirms privately with Annina. When the doctor leaves, Violetta orders Annina to give half of the small sum of money they have left to charity. All of this dialogue is sung in a sort of recitative over the orchestral continuation of the music of the prelude.
Left alone on stage, Violetta re-reads a letter that she has received from Giorgio Germont. Following a long-standing operatic convention, she speaks the words of the letter (rather than singing), while a violin solo accompanies her reading with the melody to which Alfredo first declared his love for her. In the letter Giorgio informs her that Alfredo wounded the Baron in the duel, but not fatally, and that Alfredo now knows the truth about her “sacrifice” and the two will soon come to visit her. “Too late,” she exclaims.
Looking at her wasted face in the mirror, she begins the aria “Addio, del passato” saying goodbye to her dreams of the past. It is in this aria that the term “traviata” appears, in her self-description as a “lost one.” Verdi accompanies her lament with the most plaintive of instruments, the oboe, which even completes her phrases when she pauses.
A chorus of carnival goers is heard from the street beneath her window. This type of ironic contrast between the action on stage and the world outside appears to be Verdi’s innovation, though this device was subsequently used in a number of other operas, such as Massenet’s Werther, in which the sound of children singing a Christmas carol accompanies the death of the title character, and Carmen, where the crowd in the arena cheers the bullfighters as Don José stabs his former lover.
Annina enters, announcing Alfredo’s arrival. The lovers sing a duet in which Alfredo asks for forgiveness and, as Violetta momentarily forgets her illness, the two plan a life together far from Paris. Violetta suddenly realizes the hopelessness of her situation, exclaiming “great God – to die so young,“ beginning another duet. These two duets are more symmetrical – one might say conventional – than the ones we heard earlier in the opera, in that Alfredo and Violetta echo each other’s music.
Giorgio now enters, followed by Annina and the doctor. Realizing that Violetta had not exaggerated the seriousness of her condition, he regrets the pain he caused her in her final days. Violetta calls Alfredo to her bedside and gives him a miniature portrait, asking him to show it to his future wife and to tell her it is a picture of the angel who is watching over them. At this moment the orchestra sounds a phrase which recurs throughout the scene, consisting of two short notes and one longer one (da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM), perhaps suggesting a funeral march. Always in the background, this motif acts on our subconscious in the way that a good movie score does. In an ensemble, the other characters express their laments.
Suddenly, the mood changes. Violetta says, “E strano” (“It’s strange), echoing the words she spoke in her first-act aria. She explains that the pain has stopped and she is returning to life. “O gioia!” (“O joy”), she exclaims, before collapsing to the floor. The doctor pronounces her dead as the curtain falls.
The late Dr. Morton Creditor, long-time board member of the Lyric Opera Guild, in his physician’s-eye study of operatic ailments, pointed out that Verdi and Piave have given us a realistic portrayal of Violetta’s death from consumption – a disease known today as tuberculosis. People dying of this disease remained conscious and lucid until the end, and before death they frequently experienced a phenomenon known as spes phthisica, a sense of euphoria and false hope. What they were not aware of – since germ theory was unknown in their day – was that the disease was highly contagious. In later times, it is doubtful that Alfredo would have risked close contact with her. Prior to 1950, there was no effective medical treatment, though some patients exposed to the disease remained non-symptomatic, and some experienced spontaneous recovery. Many considered it to be a life-style disease, and in telling her that her fast-lane lifestyle was killing her Alfredo was expressing the medical views of his day.