Only the Good Die Young: Verdi's La Traviata
One of opera’s great heroines is based on one of history’s extraordinary women. The 19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis was elegant, successful, famous, and gone before her time, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 23. One of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, was so inspired by her that he wrote a novel and a play about her life called The Lady of the Camellias, which in turn inspired Giuseppe Verdi to compose La Traviata.
Verdi immortalized Marie Duplessis in the character of Violetta Valéry, giving us a woman both at the height of her vitality and success, and on her deathbed. Alone, and having loved and lost a man named Alfredo, she sings “Addio del passato.” This aria is a farewell to the past and a plea to God for forgiveness. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the brief, vibrant life of Marie Duplessis and how Verdi captured her plaintive farewell in music.
As a child, soprano Lisette Oropesa saw her mother perform the role of Violetta on stage and was heartbroken by the end! Still, she found the courage to eventually take on this great heroine herself. Lisette has enjoyed learning about the strength, smarts, and tenacity of the real-life Marie Duplessis.
Writer Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera. He has worked in opera since 1972, doing everything but singing, and has written six books on Italian cuisine. Verdi is his hero because he represents all the greatness an artist can achieve both artistically and as a human being.
Writer and journalist Liesl Schillinger translated Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel, La Dame aux Camélias, and discovered in Marie Duplessis an extraordinary, generous, and shockingly modern woman. In Dumas fils, she discovered a man who was critical of the constraints and double-standards that constrained women during the 1800s.
Actor and director John Turturro is known for his roles in over 60 feature films, but perhaps less well-known as a Verdi fan. He sometimes includes operatic music in his films, and he’s even tried his hand at directing Verdi’s Rigoletto. Growing up, he remembers fondly how his dad and uncles would gather around a record player to compare and critique different singers’ performances of a single aria.