Sometimes it feels as if one is met by a production of La traviata everywhere one looks. A fresh revival has recently opened at the Royal Opera House, with a new cast taking over later in June and then again next winter; Glyndebourne mounted a new staging last season, with ENO following suit a few months later. And this is just to speak of some of the more prominent stages in the near vicinity of southeast England. Verdi’s classic story of the self-sacrificing courtesan Violetta Valéry and her hapless lover Alfredo has come to assume a primacy in the operatic canon, perhaps above all others.  If not the ubiquitous productions, the story and the more famous arias colour contemporary culture from Pretty Woman to Moulin Rouge, an impressive achievement for a culture that in so many ways disregards opera as a rarefied art form. How did Verdi’s opera come to be so enduring a phenomenon?  This is the subject of Reef Television’s captivating new film La traviata: Love, Death and Divas. Led by redoubtable BBC presenter Tom Service and Professor Amanda Vickery, it takes us through the inspiration and historical realities of the nineteenth century work and into its tumultuous premiere in London in 1856.

The film begins by exploring the source material for Verdi’s libretto, Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel La dame aux Camélias. The book was inspired by the renowned Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, who counted Dumas amongst her lovers. The programme offers fascinating insight into the historical world of the 19th century Parisian demi-monde, the tribulations faced by this underclass of women as well as the capacity for glittering success. Duplessis propelled herself from poverty to riches; the show pauses to highlight an elaborately carved and ostentatious gilt bed which another prominent demi-mondaine possessed and unashamedly left to the French state upon her death. It was a lifestyle fraught with peril – the majority of 19th century prostitutes met with less felicitous fates, illustrated in the film by a set of Victorian morality paintings by A.L. Egg now in the Tate Britain that culminates with a fallen woman homeless and sleeping with her illegitimate child under a bridge – yet the most successful of this milieu were able to emerge from the shadows and attain a surprising measure of status.

Given the society’s preoccupation with ideals of feminine purity and marital fidelity, the dramatisation on stage of a sympathetic, morally redeemed prostitute was always going to sit uneasily in Victorian England. The play based on Dumas’ novel had already been banned, and Verdi’s operatic adaptation drew moral censure when it opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Critics denounced it as the poetry of the gutter; The Saturday Review pronounced ‘the moral sense is deadened’ by the work, and the sympathetic light with which its courtesan protagonist is cast was viewed as being troublesome at the least. Yet the paying public flocked to see it, and despite the Victorian impulse for sententiousness, Traviata proved a roaring success, as it has remained.

The film charts a savvy and enlightening course through these events, highlighting the prevailing culture in France and England and the hypocrisy of the Victorian moral code. It is interspersed with key scenes from the opera, beautifully produced by Opera North. These were filmed at close range specifically for the programme, providing an intimacy and level of dramatic engagement not often found in filmed performances of opera. It is a wonderful way to experience Verdi’s music, the Violetta of Gabriela Iştoc, the Alfredo of Edgaras Montvidas and the Giorgio Germont of Stephen Gadd bringing the work to life through their close and vivid performances. The talents of Opera North are shown to great effect, as is the power of Verdi’s music to stir even those long acquainted with its magic.

La traviata: Love, Death and Divas is scheduled to be broadcast at 9.00pm on Saturday, 20 June on BBC Two. Entertaining, informative, and sparked with innovatively filmed and enthralling excerpts from the opera, it is recommended to all with an interest in Verdi, 19th century culture, or simply those who want to fall in love with this most notorious of operas all over again.

 John E. de Wald