As the Royal Opera revives its production of La traviata we talk to three of the leading ladies about their take on the role of Violetta.
The plight of the doomed consumptive heroine of Alexander Dumas’ (fils) play La Dame aux Camélias (1852, which he adapted from his 1848 novel), and Verdi’s most popular opera, La traviata which premiered the following year, has struck a chord with audiences ever since those first performances. And from then Violetta Valéry has gone on to inspire playwrights, artists, and filmmakers to produce a whole host of works based around the character. But what are the reasons for her enduring appeal? At face value, the story of a courtesan, or high-class prostitute, who falls in love but is forced to abandon her lover at the behest of his father, is an unsavoury one. Indeed, Verdi had problems bringing Violetta Valéry to life, as the censors wouldn’t allow him a contemporary setting for his opera.
Yet despite a rocky first night at La Fenice, Venice, in 1853, Verdi’s opera has gone on to become a critical success wherever it’s performed. It’s no coincidence that in Gary Marshall’s 1990 film, Pretty Woman – a rags to riches story of call girl Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) – her wealthy client Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), chooses a performance of La traviata as her introduction to the world of opera. A perfect example of life mirroring art.
A tragic end is in store as well for the characters of Terrence McNally’s seminal gay play, The Lisbon Traviata. The elusive, legendary, pirate recording of Maria Callas’ performance in Lisbon in 1958 forms the backdrop for his exploration of a strained gay relationship, which in its original 1985 format ends violently. Given the fate of Violetta is writ large over the proceedings, its tragic denouement should come as no surprise.
So what keeps drawing us to La traviata? At The Royal Opera House, Richard Eyre’s classic 1994 production has returned for 27 performances this season. It’ll be the 12th time the company has revived it, and with over 200 performances under its belt, is currently the most performed staging in The Royal Opera’s repertory.
Who better to shed some light on its perennial appeal than those sopranos who have taken on the mantle of Verdi’s doomed heroine? We caught up with three of the sopranos – Anush Hovhannisyan, Angel Blue and Hrachuhí Bassénz – starring in the latest Royal Opera revival, to find out their thoughts.
What do you think accounts for Violetta’s enduring appeal?
AH: This is a timeless tale because it is about redemption and forgiveness, something every human being can relate to and most of the people deal with due to their upbringing and religion.
HB: I think Violetta’s character is timeless and will always be topical, because Verdi showed in this opera that women are not only a source of pleasure, or just personal property that you can buy and show off to high society, but are full of emotions – love, pain – individuals who deserve simple, human treatment and empathy. For me Violetta is the culmination of Verdi’s celebration of, and dedication to women. Not only is La traviata his most popular opera, but it’s also the best – certainly the most loving, and maybe the most tragic – but one reason for Violetta’s enduring appeal is because this is not a fictional story. It carries Verdi’s breath and soul. It’s Verdi’s and Dumas’ true love story’s fusion – the real, tragic, and deep love she feels will always be modern and touching.
AB: Violetta has it all, in my opinion. She is a beautiful woman, she is desired, she is cultured, she is intelligent, well-travelled, wealthy, witty, and on top of all that she is humble. Perhaps she is humble because of her condition, but she has a beautiful personality.
What or who made you want to sing the role of Violetta and why?
AH: I was trusted the part by the wise artistic administration of Scottish Opera when I wasn’t quite sure if I could even last the first act, but they knew better. I’m so grateful to have brought this role of utter beauty and humanity into my life. Violetta is now my calling card, and I couldn’t wish for a better one!
HB: I was taking my first steps as a young student in the conservatory in Yerevan and was 18 or 19 years old when I first saw Richard Eyre’s staging, starring Angela Gheorghiu – I was amazed by her, as well as by the music, the story, and her interpretation. When I had the honour of singing the entire run of the 25th anniversary of this production, you can imagine how happy I was! I got to know La traviata through Angela and was inspired by her. I had dreamt of singing this role since I was 18 and believe it was meant for me. In every aspect – vocally and emotionally – it’s my dream role. I will never stop loving it and wanting to sing it.
AB: I first heard La traviata on CD. I was buying a Soundgarden album and for whatever reason there was a La traviata highlights album behind it. I bought it and the first song on the disc was ‘Brindisi’. I listened to it over and over, and I eventually memorised ‘Brindisi’ and ‘Ah fors’è lui… sempre libera’. When I competed in beauty pageants (from age 18-25) my talent competition song was ‘Sempre Libera’. Violetta has always been one of my favourite opera characters. I suppose the real ‘why’ of wanting to sing the role is simply because I like the music and I love her.
Violetta is one of the roles that many of the world’s most illustrious sopranos have sung – Callas, Sutherland, Freni to name but three. How do you follow in their footsteps, recreating the role in your own image?
AH: It’s quite a path to follow, but they have helped me communicate with the audience more as they have built this wealth of interpretation which I can always tap in to when not sure. A successful Violetta changes people in one night. She, and the opera, have a profound effect the audience when done well. In no other opera are the composer and the librettist able to touch the idea of redemption so intimately and so humanly. The aim is to leave the theatre better people than we were three hours before! The genius of Richard Eyre’s iconic production is the fact it’s so simple, yet so welcoming to adapt to every new Violetta. It’s created perfectly to allow every Violetta to open their heart and bring their own interpretation to it. I’m so honoured to be stepping into the shoes of Angela Gheorghiu, who premiered this production, who was then followed by the greatest sopranos of our time.
HB: Those legends have been a huge influence and it’s very difficult not to copy them. Some roles are so linked to the sopranos who’ve sung them – Norma (Callas), Violetta (Gheorghiu), they’re always in my head. But it’s not possible to follow in their footsteps, if you want to create your own interpretation. To prepare for a role like this I try to read the story, understand the psychological state of the character, the age, the times, watch the movies, digest the character, and create my own view of her. Of course that’s a little easier if it’s a new production, rather than a revival, because for a revival you have to repeat what’s already been done. But I always try to synthesise, give myself, and put my soul into it through experience and my inner world.
AB: First I have to say how honoured I feel to be singing this great role, and at The Royal Opera House is so very special to me. Violetta and I have a long history together. I’ve known her since I was 16 years old, so I feel that when I sing this role I’m always just creating the memory I have of first meeting her. How do I create the role in my own image? I am proud and thankful to say that I was the first black woman to sing the role of Violetta at La Scala (2019) where the role is held in very high regard for Maria Callas. Callas will always be my favourite Violetta and if I’m doing anything to follow in her footsteps in regard to singing a role, I’m blessed. For me, being the first black woman to sing this role at La Scala means that now the door for sopranos who look like me has been opened.
Compared to other roles you sing, what makes the role of Violetta so special?
AH: Her humanity, strength, and her relationship with the God she believes in. And the fact she was passionately and unapologetically in love until the last breath.
HB: Of course the power of story and music. It’s extraordinary, so sensual, grandiose, and beautiful. In fact I can’t compare that many roles to Violetta. Maybe Butterfly or Mimi, because these characters are also doomed to carry the stamp of disgrace of being a ‘fallen woman’. And when eventually they experience real love, their past life becomes unimportant – they’re ready to sacrifice their lives for that great love. For me Violetta and the heroines mentioned above are no longer courtesans, but angels, sacrificing their own happiness for the peace and happiness of their loved ones. Someone who tastes true love is cleansed and can never be a ‘fallen one’ ever again.
AB: Violetta is so special because she requires essentially three different types of soprano, but one solid technique. She is special because she is the embodiment of a worldly woman with good values. That might sound like a juxtaposition, but she is. The other roles I have sung and am going to sing are quite different from Violetta. She is the real prima donna of opera… in my opinion.
Many thanks to Anush Hovhannisyan, Angel Blue and Hrachuhí Bassénz for taking the time to give their thoughts on the enduring appeal of the character they embody so well.
Please check The Royal Opera House listings to see when they’re appearing as Violetta in the current run.