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Opera North

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Belle Epoque La traviata at Opera North

We caught up with La traviata’s designer Madeleine Boyd and put together this selection of influential images to give you a taste of the sights, shapes and colours you can expect to see…

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'This photograph epitomizes the feel and mood we want to achieve at the opening of the opera – the party hosted by Violetta. There are very few photographs or paintings of actual opium dens or harems (for obvious reasons!) – most, including this image by Brassai which dates from the 1920s, slightly later than our period, were staged photographs. In these, the harem was romanticized and portrayed as something exotic, fascinating, and much more beautiful than the gritty, dirty reality. In our design, which you will see, we have tried to find a middle ground between these romanticized photographs and the gritty reality.’

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'Setting La traviata in the Belle Epoque period allowed us to model Violetta on two particularly prominent courtesans of the period: La Belle Otero and Liane de Pougy. Both these women were not only part of the most elite and inner circles of society, but were quite literally whispering in the ears of politicians and crown princes, privy to their most intimate secrets, and as such were highly influential individuals. Therefore we have been able to place Violetta as a courtesan in a highly relevant context, and the designs for her are heavily influenced by the lavish, flowing, highly romantic and slightly scandalous Belle Epoque style of de Pougy and La Belle Otero.’ 

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'In designing the backdrop for La traviata’s set, I started looking at Japanese artwork, as something that reflected the Western world’s preoccupation with ‘Eastern’ art, fashion, colours and culture at this point in time. I particularly looked for Japanese artwork that looked like smoke, so that, depending on the differing lighting states throughout the piece, the backdrop could appear to the audience as a dreamy silkscreen print, and later as the grimy, nicotine-stained back wall of an opium den.’

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'The blue mosaic wall in this painting ‘The Snake Charmer’ (1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme heavily influenced the design for the floor of the set. Gerome was a key figure in the Parisian mid-Nineteenth Century art movement which was inspired by and which represented the Orient through Western eyes. This was ideal material, as we needed the floor to look both Harem-like and distinctively Parisian.’ 

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'These next two images were particularly influential in the design of our La traviata. I was struck by the sense of solitude and isolation – it resounded with the isolation of Violetta as someone suffering from a fatal illness with no hope of a cure. I was also interested in the sense of outdoors and fresh, clean air embodied in both these images, and could envision Violetta searching out and drinking in the fresh air to try and relieve her congested lungs. Thus, as you will see, the opening of Act II has a distinctive outdoor feel, with a jetty similar to the one you see here (above) as the focal set piece.’

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'This second image was the inspiration for the geometric structure of the whole set. The original brief from the director, Alessandro Talevi, was one set that could be re-invented and re-dressed for each scene of the opera – Violetta’s party, the two lovers’ country haven, Flora’s party, and lastly Violetta’s bedroom. The central block in this image inspired the idea of one key, central set piece that could be re-incarnated as required – thus the jetty of Act II has previously been Violetta’s bed – the focal point of the party, in Act I, becomes a roulette table for Flora’s party later in Act II, and finally, becomes a squalid death bed in Act III. The surrounding sea represents the floor of the stage, recreated in blue mosaic tile.’ 

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Some initial costume sketches for the ladies of the chorus, who form a disarrayed mass of Violetta’s companions and opium smokers at the opening of the opera. image

Some costume sketches for the men of the chorus. ‘We wanted to represent a whole cross section of society through the designs for the chorus - not just the elite. Throughout the piece, we are looking to emphasize in particular the hypocrisy of the men who mix with her when she was a celebrated figure and perceived as desirable, but abandoned and looked down on her when she lost her health and her beauty, and was dying.’ 

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A montage of fabric swatches to represent the bright, oriental colour palette for La traviata

Experience the real thing: La traviata at Opera North opens on 20 September 2014 - please visit out website to purchase tickets

La traviata Fact 5: Moulin Rouge

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La traviata was also a significant influence on Baz Luhrmann’s musical film Moulin Rouge (2001) and follows the same basic plot.

Moulin Rouge tells the story of celebrated courtesan and star of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, Satine, who, though resisting at first, gives in to the unwavering love and devotion of a young poet/writer, mirroring the scenario of La traviata. Like Violetta, Satine learns that love can be true and idealistic, and something she is able to experience.  

However, both romances are shattered by extenuating circumstances, and both Violetta and Satine selflessly sacrifice their own happiness for someone else’s sake. In Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge as in La traviata, the courtesan’s lover misunderstands the decisions she has made, believes she is unfaithful and throws money at her in payment for her ‘services’, cheapening the love they shared. Most strikingly, the heroine in both succumbs to the consumption that has been gradually weakening her, and tragically dies.

Interestingly, the iconic red dress that Nicole Kidman wore as Satine echoes how top fashion designer J Mendel imagined his Violetta to be, and how Lila di Nobili designed Violetta back in 1955, as worn by soprano Maria Callas. 

La traviata Fact 4: Controversy!

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Verdi had wanted to set La traviata in the present day, a ‘modern-dress’ staging, but it soon became clear that this was impossible. Opera was a very conventional art form and the subject matter of La traviata – Paris through the eyes of a courtesan - was just too shocking.  It was also only five years since the death of Marie Duplessis, the famous courtesan and prototype for Violetta, making the subject even more controversial.

Even the supporters of Verdi were not immune to qualms about the content of La traviata. Abramo Basevi, an Italian musicologist, a contemporary of Verdi and the author of the first full-length study of Verdi’s output published in 1859, wrote:

'Verdi was unable to resist the temptation of setting to music, and so making more attractive and acceptable, a filthy and immoral subject, universally loved because the vice it represents is universal.'

Image above: Censorship was strict at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy, the place of La traviata’s premiere. 

La traviata Fact 3: Consumption…

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Violetta is brought to her untimely end by the illness known during the 18th and 19th centuries as ‘consumption’ – a more glamorous name for Tuberculosis (TB). The 19th century brought a particularly high concentration of TB deaths in part due to higher population densities in cities.

The issue of ‘consumption’ was a highly topical subject for Verdi to address in his opera. Nobody at the time really knew what the cause of the illness was or how it was transmitted, thus consumption was shrouded in mystery and fascination, and was much explored by artists of the era as something quite romantic. Lord Byron went as far as to write ‘I should like to die from consumption’.

At the premiere of the opera, the soprano cast in the role of Violetta, the acclaimed Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, was so overweight that she couldn’t possibly credibly play a young woman suffering from ‘consumption’, which was so named after the dramatic weight loss associated with the disease. Opening night was therefore a disaster, though the rest of the run was actually moderately successful - an upside to a good scandal! 

Image above: Violetta battles with her fatal illness during her last hours in Vancouver Opera’s La traviata. Photo by Tim Matheson. 

La traviata Fact 2: Pretty Woman

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La traviata contains major plot parallels to the 1990 American film Pretty Woman, and was a significant influence on the film’s themes and characters. 

The story of Pretty Woman centres on two characters: the Hollywood prostitute Vivian Ward, and wealthy businessman Edward Lewis, who hires her to be his escort for several business and social functions, paralleling La traviata’s characters of Violetta Valery, a courtesan, and poet from a wealthy family, Alfredo Germont.

During the film, Edward takes Vivian to the opera in San Francisco to see La traviata itself. Vivian is visibly moved by the opera’s very pertinent themes of a courtesan falling in love with one of her suiters, and by Violetta’s tragic fate.

Most strikingly, both Vivian (Pretty Woman) and Violetta (La traviata) have incredibly difficult decisions to make and are required to think seriously about the difference between their place in polite society as prostitutes, and that of their wealthy/respectable new paramours. Vivian eventually decides to follow the opposite path to Violetta, giving up her life as prostitute to stay with Edward, in the face of social disdain. In Pretty Woman’s final scene, Edward’s arrival at Vivian’s apartment in his last, dramatic attempt to persuade her to stay is accompanied by the music of La traviata

La traviata Fact 1: Brindisi

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La traviata features one of the most famous opera melodies of all time – Brindisi. Brindisi is a drinking song, in which a group of people are encouraged to drink, to celebrate, to have fun. The name, although an Italian word, derives from a German phrase “bring dir’s” (Offer it to you). During the dazzling party hosted by Violetta that opens the opera, Alfredo, as a poet, is urged to propose a toast, a ‘brindisi’, and sings:

Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici
Che la bellezza infiora
e la fuggevol ora
s’inebrii a voluttà

Let’s drink from glasses
resplendent with beauty;
let the fleeting hours feel
the intoxication of pleasure.

He is joined by Violetta and by the whole chorus. Hear it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dKSJ2aH1BQ

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