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La Traviata and tragic misunderstandings

 

I saw La Traviata yesterday at the King’s Head Theatre, in a very interesting adaptation by Becca Marriott and Helena Jackson. In order to adjust the opera to the constraints of the theatre (the backroom of an Islington pub), the authors condensed the story to a 2-hour, 4-character show. But that’s not all: they’ve also modernized the libretto, and added a welcome bite to it.

One problem with many nineteenth century operas is the cliché of the tragic heroine. As Caroline Crampton noted,

In many 19th-century operas, terrible things happen to a woman, she sings about them, and then dies. Sometimes, for a bit of variety, she will go mad prior to expiring in a grisly fashion. At the end, the principal male characters – who are likely all responsible in some way for her demise – will stand around her body and sing about what a tragedy it all is.

To overcome this cliché, Becca Marriott changed the nature of the plea Alfredo’s father makes to Violetta to make her end their relationship: in Verdi’s opera, he argues that Alfredo’s sister will not be able to find a husband if the family’s reputation is stained. This makes little sense to a modern audience. Instead, here, Alfredo’s father is… a politician; and his son’s dalliance could compromise his career, and his ability to help Alfredo achieve his dreams. Violetta consequently ends their relationship, not out of respect for social customs, but out of love for Alfredo.

Which leads to what I found fascinating in the characters’ interactions: successive episodes of misunderstandings / information asymmetries, with tragic consequences. To take only two examples:

At the beginning, Alfredo declares his love to Violetta — who, as a stripper, is used to such outbursts and takes them with skepticism. He offers to save her — and she retorts that she is very much in control of her life, thank you very much. Alfredo, in classic rescuer mode, has completely misread the situation.

Toward the end, Alfredo confronts Violetta and asks her to say whether she loves him or not. Of course she does — but she cannot tell him the truth, as his life is in danger if he stays. So she lies, and he leaves forever.

These informational asymmetries are what makes the scenes tragic: each character’s actions are logical and understandable, and yet lead to a catastrophic outcome.

La Traviata is on at the King’s Head Theatre until October 27. If you are in London and want to experience opera in direct contact with the actors, I strongly recommend you book.

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