Saturday, March 30, 2013
As he neared the age of forty, Verdi could look back on a series of successes, culminating in Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. With a commission from the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the composer looked not to another heroic, patriotic subject or large-canvas melodrama but to a play on a contemporary theme, La Dame aux Camélias, by Alexandre Dumas fils, taken from the playwright's earlier novel. The character of Violetta was based on the real-life courtesan Rose Alphonsine Plessis, known as Marie Duplessis in the demimonde she inhabited.
The premiere, on March 6, 1853, was a fiasco, due in part to the work's realistic social theme. Verdi felt betrayed by the production, which was not set in the contemporary period he intended. The singers were no help: the soprano was overweight, the tenor in bad voice and the baritone dissatisfied with his role.
In a different production, at another Venetian theater a year later, the work triumphed. It reached the U.S. at the New York Academy of Music on December 3, 1856. Marcella Sembrich was the Met's first Violetta, under the baton of Auguste Vianesi, in 1883, the company's opening season. Since then, virtually every Met soprano who can negotiate the coloratura of "Sempre libera" has attempted the role for the company. Particularly celebrated Met exponents of Violetta have included Rosa Ponselle, Lucrezia Bori, Licia Albanese (whose eighty-seven Met performances of Violetta constitute the company record), Renata Tebaldi, Dorothy Kirsten, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto, Beverly Sills, Ileana Cotrubas, Patricia Racette, Renée Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu. The Met's current production, staged by Willy Decker, was created for the Salzburg Festival in 2005. The Met premiere of the Decker staging, with Gianandrea Noseda conducting Marina Poplavskaya and Matthew Polenzani, was given on December 31, 2010.