Tragic Passion: ‘La traviata’ opens Aspen Opera Center summer season
Author Peggy Ornstein was discussing her latest book, “Girls and Sex,” with Terry Gross the other day and relayed a very interesting observation. Ornstein’s daughter was coming of age in the “hook-up culture” and so she decided she wanted to have a better understanding of what that meant. She interviewed over 70 girls between the ages of 15 and 20, and one girl’s observation stood out: “A girl said to me, you know, usually the opposite of a negative is a positive. But when you’re talking about girls and sex, the opposite of slut is a prude, both of which are negative.”
Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata,” the Aspen Opera Center’s first production of the season debuting Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House, tells the story of Violetta, a glamorous, young “courtesan” with failing health. She is perhaps the most beloved prostitute in the Western Canon (second only to Vivian Ward in Garry Marshall’s “Pretty Woman”). “La traviata” is Italian for “the fallen woman.” But what does that mean exactly? A woman who has sex before she is married or a woman who sells her body on a daily basis — perhaps, not the same woman, no? Marie Duplessis, the real life inspiration for Violetta, was sold to an old man by her father when she was a child.
“I must always be free, rushing from pleasure to pleasure,” Violetta sings in one of her most famous arias, Sempre libera. “I want my life to follow the path of enjoyment. Gaily I turn to new delights that make my spirit soar. But love …”
Offstage, we hear the echoes of a lovesick Alfredo (played by Alexander McKissick). Violetta starts to melt and Verdi does his magic.
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“I hate to say it. It’s such a cliche,” says director Edward Berkeley, the veteran director of the Aspen Opera and director of opera undergraduate studies at Juilliard, “But she’s the courtesan with the heart of gold. … I keep telling the cast, she’s the most moral character in the story.”
Berkeley is absolutely right, and it would seem her sacrifices would be just as misunderstood today as they were in 1853 when the opera premiered in Venice.
“Everyone wants something from someone throughout the course of the opera — Violetta isn’t different,” says Anna Dugan, who plays Violetta. “But she does not let her desires affect others negatively.”
“Violetta appeals to people,” Berkeley explains. “She wants to survive. She wants to rise above the world. She’s fighting for herself, and for love.”
Alas, the deck is stacked against her. She finds a man who she truly loves, but one wonders if Alfredo would ever truly and completely love and trust her in return — is she a slut or a prude or perhaps just a human being? Time will never tell.
“A fallen woman is a woman who has fallen short of her virtue,” explains one white-haired man at the Grey Lady. His much younger female companion offers simultaneously, “A fallen woman is someone who is broken.” The female bartender describes something along the same lines, “Someone who has given up hope.”
An informal survey of the late-night crowd offered offered alarmingly consistent responses. Women thought a fallen woman was a victim; men thought it was something else entirely. An age-old yet timeless story line.
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