Opera Betty: La Traviata


La Traviata, as it turns out, means “The Lost One.” This is news to me as I always thought it was a derivation of the verb travailler and had something to do with a working girl. Which would make sense since, as we have previously discussed, a courtesan is a high class working girl.

There’s heaps to like about La Traviata. Operas with courtesans always have great costumes and fancy sets and this one is no exception. Also, someone dies in the end and I do love an opera where someone dies.

The people you need to concern yourself with here are:

  • Violetta – the title character
  • Alfredo Germont – the guy who falls in love with her and whisks her out of courtesanness, kind of like in that Police song or Pretty Woman, if you will
  • Flora – Violetta’s friend
  • Annina – Violetta’s maid
  • Giorgio Germont – Alfredo’s father, (they just call him Germont)
  • Baron Douphol – Violetta’s escort before Alfredo came along

The opera starts with a prelude that is, like many preludes, a clip show of what’s to come – specifically, the love theme and the somebody’s-going-to-die theme. The word on the street is that the prelude is the last bit to be written. Composers are reported to knock them out just as the orchestra is tuning up, wondering where their music is. They can do this because preludes are an assemblage of the Big Smash Hits they’ve already written in the opera. So. The sad violins are the dying theme and the happy violins are the love theme. Moving on.

Act I

A party at Violetta’s house. At this party she’s introduced to Alfredo, who has been charmingly stalking her for the last year. She had been sick (still is – it’s consumption and did I already say she dies at the end? Spoiler alert), and he’s come every day to check on her. He arrives to the chagrin of Baron Douphol who is Violetta’s escort. The baron has not checked on her every day because, well, he’s not supposed to be likeable. After a bit of chit-chat (which in operaese is called “recitative“), Alfredo sings a drinking song. Who doesn’t like a good drinking song?

Alfredo tells Violetta he loves her. She tells him not to bother. They go on like this for quite some time. And then she tells him to go away, but to come back tomorrow. After he leaves, Violetta sings about how swell it would be to fall in love and have someone love her back. And then she decides she’s really meant for the courtesan life after all.

Alfredo is heard singing outside her window, which changes Violetta’s mind briefly, but then she’s all back to living the high life. No way no how will she leave all this for love.

Act II

She has left it all for love. Violetta and Alfredo have been living outside Paris for three months in unwedded bliss and are running out of money. Alfredo discovers this when he talks to Annina, who tells him Violetta has gone to Paris to sell her stuff and pay their bills. Alfredo is horrified and goes to Paris to get the money himself. There are no details as to how he plans to accomplish this. Maybe he learned a thing or two from Violetta?

While he is gone, Violetta comes back. And then Alfredo’s father, Germont, arrives. Germont asks Violetta to leave Alfredo because her reputation is tarnishing the family name. As long as she remains, says Germont, Alfredo’s sister cannot marry her fiance. It’s complicated. When Violetta waffles a bit, Germont throws in the zinger that when she gets old and saggy, Alfredo will probably leave her anyway. Violetta agrees and writes a letter to Alfredo. She goes to Paris and leaves Germont to deal with Alfredo.

Alfredo comes home and receives Violetta’s letter just after she leaves. He also finds a discarded invitation to a party at Flora’s house, so he storms off to Paris to find Violetta.

Violetta does indeed show up at Flora’s party, with the Baron. Alfredo arrives and proceeds to school the Baron at cards. He wins a pile of cash, enough to pay their debts. Dinner is served, but Violetta asks Alfredo to stay back so she can talk to him. She doesn’t explain what happened, just warns him that the Baron will probably try to provoke a duel. Alfredo kind of loses it a little and calls everyone back into the room. He tells them all how she sold everything and, throwing his winnings at her, declares that he’s paid her back. And then he sings to himself  “Ah si! Che feci! No sento orrore!” which is Italian for “wow, I’m a total asshat.”


Violetta is dying. She’s at her house, which is not such a party these days. She’s attended to by Annina and visited by the doctor, who has quietly told Annina she doesn’t have long to live. Violetta, I mean. Annina’s fine.

At the last possible minute, Alfredo shows up – having been told everything by his father. They sing to each other and Violetta suddenly announces that she feels better. Oh happy day! And then she dies. More sad violin music.

The end.

I have a radio show on opera for people who hate opera on WOMR. Opera Betty is at noon eastern time on the 2nd Sunday of the month.