Thanks to various adaptations, great works of literature often lead many lives. Take, for example, “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexander Dumas, son of the author of the same name who wrote “The Three Musketeers.”
Dumas, identified as “fils” or “son” to distinguish him from his equally famous father, published his best-known novel in 1848 and personally adapted it as a stage play in 1852. Somewhat autobiographical in nature – the main character, a French courtesan known popularly to English-speaking audiences as Camille, is based on a woman with whom the author himself had a brief affair – the stage adaptation became a star-making vehicle for many notable actresses, including Sara Bernhardt, Tallulah Bankhead and Lillian Gish. There have also been over 20 film versions with the most memorable being the 1936 motion picture starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.
The story of the courtesan and her young lover also found renewed life in both dance and opera. It was the inspiration for one of Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets, “Marguerite and Armand” (1963), starring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and, most notably, Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” or “The Woman Who Strayed.”
A fully staged Palmetto Opera production of what is probably Verdi’s most performed opera is set for Jan. 17 at the Koger Center for the Arts in Columbia. Verdi, who himself found love out of wedlock – he lived with the popular soprano Giuseppina Strepponi for 12 years before eventually marrying her, undoubtedly found personal resonance in this tragic tale of a courtesan who fails in her attempt to transcend her life as a kept woman.
In the book, the play and the opera, the title character Marguerite (Violetta in Verdi’s adaptation) believes that she has found true love in the form of a young gentleman from the countryside (Armand in the novel but Alfredo in the opera) who convinces her to renounce her lavish lifestyle as a high class prostitute and live with him. They exist for a time in their own seemingly idyllic world financed by the sale of most of the courtesan’s earnings. Then, one fateful day, the young man’s father arrives to convince Violetta to give up her son in order to restore the family’s reputation and make it possible for Alfredo’s younger sister to marry respectably.
Despite her place outside of polite society, Violetta seems to possess more honor than most of the men who have paid for her favors. At his father’s pleading, she gives up her lover, convincing Alfredo temporarily that she no longer loves him. They are reunited only after he learns belatedly of her sacrifice and the concurrent deterioration in her health; she dies in his arms.
In the role of the painted courtesan Violetta in the Palmetto Opera production is Austin, Texas, resident Susanne Burgess, who made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2018 and first sang with New York City Opera soon thereafter. She will be joined on stage by Italian-born tenor Alessio Borraginne, who now resides in Washington, D.C. “La Traviata” provides the lead soprano and tenor some of opera’s most famous arias and duets. In the first act, for example, Violetta is hosting a party in her elaborately furnished salon for many of her former, present and perhaps future “clients”; just introduced to Alfredo, she asks him to provide some entertainment for her guests, and he sings a now-famous drinking song; In that same act is the duet “Un di Felice” or “One Happy Day” during which Alfredo confesses his infatuation with his hostess and she protests that she is unworthy of his devotion. Violetta’s stunning aria “Sempre Libera” or “Always Free” summarizes her life up to the moment of Alfredo’s confession: the life of a butterfly flitting from pleasure to pleasure.
Produced by Teatro Lirico D’Europa, a touring company founded in 1988, the Palmetto Opera production of “La Traviata” is set for 7:30 on Jan. 17 at the Koger Center in Columbia; tickets can be purchased by visiting www.palmettooperasc.org. With the regrettable decline of opera in Augusta, local lovers of this musical genre should consider seriously the hour-long drive to Columbia to help satisfy their longing for live performance.