The audience in Venice, Italy, was rowdy, jeering at singer Fanny Salvini-Donatelli.
The soprano’s character was supposed to be a sprightly young woman wasting away from tuberculosis. But the stout Salvini-Donatelli was 38 years old, considered too old to portray the character in the eyes of the audience.
Because of Salvini-Donatelli — and the poor singing of baritone Felice Varesi and tenor Lodovico Graziani — the 1853 premiere of “La Traviata” was a train wreck. Even composer Giuseppe Verdi called the evening a “fiasco.”
Though audiences initially may have hated “La Traviata,” it’s become one of the most venerated operas of all time. Set in 1850, it tells the story of a famous courtesan as she finds love only to be struck by tuberculosis.
“The story of Violetta is just so real,” says Cecilia Violetta Lopez, who fittingly plays Violetta in the Virginia Opera production coming to town this weekend. “It’s not a fairy tale, it’s not a Disney movie. It’s a story of real people, but it’s helped to come to life by the music of Verdi.”
When the opera begins, Violetta is entertaining guests after recently recovering from an illness. The young nobleman Alfredo is introduced to her, announcing that he’s loved her from afar. Answering that all she has to offer him is friendship, Violetta realizes that she’s never been in love.
“She’s put up this wall or barrier from having any feelings inside,” Lopez says. Violetta and Alfredo fall in love and move in together, only to have Alfredo’s father beg Violetta to break things off because of the shame brought to their family. “As the story continues, it goes from giving into love to being asked to sacrifice the happiness that she has.”
Compared with other productions, conductor Andrew Bisantz says, the staging will include a more accurate depiction of what courtesans went through back in the day.
“It’s a realistic picture — as much as an opera can do — of what societal implications were like,” Bisantz says. “It’s one of the most performed operas and for a reason. The story is timeless and the music is incredibly beautiful, but also very memorable. It’s a distillation of the best of what opera can be.”
Malcolm MacKenzie, who portrays Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, in the performance, says “La Traviata” is a great show for first-time opera-goers.
“It’s a tale that’s not too long, it’s bittersweet, it’s a story that’s easy for anyone to comprehend,” MacKenzie says. “[It’s about] forbidden love, and the impact that it has on family.”
It’s MacKenzie’s character who convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo. “Ostensibly, he’s trying to break up his son’s liaison with this courtesan in order to make it easier for his daughter to get married,” MacKenzie says.
The show’s principal cast members are some of the best he’s worked with, conductor Bisantz says. “Rolando [Sanz, who plays Alfredo] is a very experienced tenor who absolutely has the vocal and dramatic goods,” he says. “Malcolm MacKenzie is a baritone who’s been on the scene for a bit. He is just so intensely dramatic and sings with such passion it’s really terrifically moving.”
As for Lopez, “She’s just a star,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. She’s so invested in every single moment, and when the three of them are singing together onstage, it’s just remarkable.”
For those who are reluctant to see opera, Lopez stresses the relatability of the art form.
“Opera is for everybody,” Lopez says. “No matter what language you speak or where you come from, I think the stories are very real, and through the power of music we’re all able to connect.” S
Virginia Opera’s “La Traviata” plays March 27 and 29 at Richmond CenterStage, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.