Consumed by romance: Pop culture’s obsession with “the fallen woman”
The Eklund Opera Program revisits Verdi’s sweeping masterpiece “La Traviata” this season.
A woman sits in a private box in a grand theatre. She’s wearing a red off-the-shoulder gown, her hair in a delicate chignon, her only accessory a striking diamond necklace. As the curtain rises and the sweeping orchestrations begin, she watches the performance with bated breath. Periodically she gasps. She clutches the edge of the box in despair. By the time the last note plays, she finds herself softly crying. Her partner, a tuxedoed gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair, looks on as she flashes her million-dollar smile and claps enthusiastically through her tears.
I am, of course, describing a scene from the iconic 1990 film “Pretty Woman,” in which Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere, takes his escort Vivian—Julia Roberts, who needs no introduction—to a performance of “La Traviata.” For fans in the know, the scene offers a cheeky nod to the audience, as the former work borrows several key details from the latter.
“La Traviata” (and to a lesser extent “Pretty Woman”) tells the story of an up-and-coming gentleman named Alfredo who falls in love with Violetta, a charming and popular courtesan. Violetta initially leaves behind fame and fortune for Alfredo, but eventually is pressured into abandoning him for his own good. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it involves plenty of romance, heartbreak, and everyone’s favorite turn-of-the-century silver bullet: consumption, also known as tuberculosis. (More on that later.)
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve most definitely heard it before. “La Traviata” is an operatic masterpiece, no doubt; but Verdi wasn’t original in regard to the plot. His work was based on a play by Alexandre Dumas; the play itself an adaptation of Dumas’ own novel “La Dame aux Camélias”. In the decades since, the story has also been adapted into ballets, additional plays, books, musicals, even drag parodies. Perhaps most famous to current readers? Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 jukebox musical “Moulin Rouge” is a close (but not exact) adaptation of the plot.
It begs the question: Why have artists and audiences returned to the story time and again? Perhaps a clue can be found, curiously, in the consumption, says music director Nicholas Carthy:
“It is estimated that tuberculosis was responsible for half the deaths among youth under 25 in the 19th century, and because the disease spread very quickly through crowded urban environments—just the sort of conditions in which the young lived—it was also seized upon by the moral guardians of the age as a disease of the wanton and those of loose morals. It was said—and this, of course, needs to be taken with a huge sack of Victorian salt and hypocrisy—that in men the disease heightened artistic creativity, and in women beauty and promiscuity.”
Indeed, the phrase “La Traviata” itself means “the fallen woman,” a marginally less crass version of its modern counterpart: “the hooker with a heart of gold.” Both phrases denote a character trope that artists and audiences alike have been fascinated by for centuries. To apply a critical lens to the idea, the universal archetype reveals humanity’s complicated feelings toward sex and sexuality in the female body, both historically and now.
Verdi sensed these themes and sought to interrogate them thoroughly. He originally workshopped the opera under the title “Violetta: A subject for our own age” and gave it a contemporary setting. While those details were scrapped due to local censorship, what remains is a deep dive into the psychology of each character, probing the same juxtapositions of youth, love and sex we do today.
“’Sempre Libera’—Violetta’s astonishing aria—is typical in its Italianate virtuosity, but anything but typical in its dramatic content,” says Carthy. “Verdi is not showing us the decision being made. Given that Violetta has, of necessity to her profession, denied herself the love, warmth and companionship that every human being needs, there can only be one possible outcome; as soon as she lets the possibility of love break through the wall she has built between her feelings and the outside world, she is lost.
“All this we know, and Verdi never tells what we already know. He simply describes the thought process, the self-justification, the illusions that Violetta harbors. It is human life laid bare.”
The Eklund Opera Program presents “La Traviata” in Macky Auditorium Oct. 22-24. Tickets start at $15. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit cupresents.org.