Zeffirelli’s La Traviata

Poet Mark Doty has said, “If art’s acceptable evidence, mustn’t what lies behind the world be at least as beautiful as the human voice?” If you are unconvinced by that question, Franco Zeffirelli’s magnificent production of the great Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata may be your path into it. For lovers of Italian opera, you will most likely have seen this movie more than once; if you are unsure of whether or not it’s for you, I can only encourage you to open yourself to a new experience. Since you are already a lover of things Italian if you are reading this post, just imagine “La Bella Lingua” flowing from the lips of Superhuman Beings in a film of extravagant beauty and staggering opulence. 

When this movie was released in the early spring of 1983, Provincetown had three thriving movie theaters, as well as free movies (with popcorn!) all winter at the Pilgrim House, the Crown & Anchor, and the Whaler Lounge at the old Holiday Inn. It was a film feast! One projectionist worked the three commercial theaters, and was kept very busy. If you were a friend, and not too shy to ask, it was possible to get a lobby poster at the end of the film’s run. I treasured my poster of La Traviata for years, until I gave it away to a friend who was equally enamored of it.

Vincent Canby, renowned film and theater critic of the New York Times for more than three decades, called the production “a triumph….La Traviata benefits from Mr. Zeffirelli’s talents as a designer as much as from his gifts as a director. The physical production is lush without being fussy. Nor is it ever overwhelming. This possibly is because at key moments we are always aware of details that, however realistic, remind us that what we are witnessing is not life but a grand theatrical experience. It’s not to be missed.”

The original source for the story of La Traviata is the novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas “the younger,” published in 1848. When he adapted his story for the stage, it was wildly popular, and attracted the attention of the great Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi, who from it created the enduring masterpiece we know as La Traviata (The Fallen Woman). It was first performed in 1853 at La Fenice Opera House in Venice, and is still one of the most frequently performed of all operas.

In Zeffirelli’s film, the notorious courtesan Violetta Valéry is played by incandescent soprano Teresa Stratas, a true star whose astounding operatic talents are matched by her physical beauty and her superb skills as an actor. As the tragic Violetta, she is absolute perfection; tiny and delicate, it’s not impossible to believe she is terminally ill with tuberculosis, or as it was romantically and accurately called at the time, consumption. She claims to live only for a life of pleasure. Her extravagant lifestyle and parties, funded by a string of wealthy lovers, supports that claim. But, of course, there is much more to her. Poet Alfredo Germont, who has adored her from a distance for the past year, appears at her party and sings a toast (“brindisi”) to her. His devotion touches her heart and she falls deeply in love with him. Alfredo is played by the brilliant tenor Plácido Domingo, “recognized as one of the finest and most influential singing actors in the history of opera.” From the first scene of the film, you understand that their relationship will end tragically, so there are no spoilers here. Unlike the usual flow from the beginning of Act One until the curtain falls, Zeffirelli has structured the film as a flashback to happier times, as Violetta now faces her lonely death. I think it is a very effective device in this context.

In Act Two, Violetta decides to abandon the gaiety and debauchery of Paris to live a simpler life at her country estate, with Alfredo. Their three-month idyll ends abruptly when Alfredo’s father appears and convinces the sensitive and compassionate Violetta that she must give up her great love in order to protect Alfredo’s sister, whose engagement will be terminated if the shame of Violetta and Alfredo’s liaison becomes publicly known. Her renunciation scene is exquisitely heartrending, and every time I have watched her suffering, it’s had the same effect on me. The times we are living through in 2020 are surely enough to make a stone weep. So if you feel great, fat tears rolling down your cheeks at the end of Act Two, Scene One, be grateful for some moments of catharsis. God knows, we all need it.

Although there is no official trailer to be found online, here are a couple of videos which I hope will give you a feel for the production. They are odd ones, I must say, but not the oddest ones from this film which are available on the internet! Well, you’ll see what I mean. When watching the full film, make sure to turn on the English subtitles which, though not as good as they could be, are still helpful. Zeffirelli’s La Traviata is available on DVD through CLAMS or any other library system to which you belong.

To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 12!