Those three capitalised nouns represent the kernel of very many plots in literature, theatre and opera. Seeing Verdi’s La Traviata in Sydney renewed my interest both in those ingredients of story-telling, and also in the disease, then called ‘consumption’, that causes Violetta’s early death — and also Mimi’s in Puccini’s La Boheme.
‘Consumption’ got its name because the disease was seen to consume the body, and it eventually became renamed as ‘tuberculosis’ when the rod-shaped bacterium that caused the illness was identified in the 1880s. The bacterium loves the human lung, and causes a wasting and most painful illness that finally kills the sufferer. Despite the movies and the opera, in which the heroines appear to gain amazing strength just before the crisis, it was not at all a romantic way to die.
La Traviata was based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel La Dame aux Camelias, and consumption had a respectable pedigree in literature, having killed Chopin and Keats, Chekov, Kafka and, more recently, George Orwell. It was a disease of the city, with overcrowding, poor nutrition and a lack of knowledge underlying its prevalence. The discovery of antibiotics brought TB to an end, though I can remember from the 1950s at least one sanatorium devoted to TB sufferers in the Southern Highlands in New South Wales. It may come back, as bacteria are showing signs of bypassing at least our current antibugs.
Sex, love and death never go away, but it is literature that illustrates them with their greatest poignancy. Opera, which combines story-telling with music, can turn the knife even further. What grabbed me again in this performance was how the ingredients seem not to have changed through human history. They are there in abundance in Homer’s tales, in all the myths and legends of all the races who have lived, and in our culture today.
And I think they point to a strong hard-wiring that is part of being human. Erotic love is incredibly powerful for those who experience it, and most do. It is related to our sexual maturing, and hits us first in our late teens and early twenties. We are made that way, and were it not so our species might have died out. Jared Diamond’s Why Sex is Fun covers some of this territory, and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene provides a context.
But it works in different ways for men and women. Women have an inbuilt clock, and can make a baby only for twenty to twenty-five years. They need a man to make the baby, but not all men are especially interested in making babies, though they are interested, nearly all the time, in sex. They will never have the keen sense of ownership of their children that a woman has, who carried the baby for nine months in her own body, and fed the infant at the beginning again from her own body. The right kind of father is very important for women, who will be vulnerable while pregnant and in the early years of the child. Will he stay? Will he still love me? Can he really look after us? These questions have no real male counterparts.
Violetta has avoided erotic love until she meets Alfredo, though she has exchanged sex for protection. The title of the opera translates as ‘The Fallen One’, or ‘The Strayed Woman’, and the whole moral force of the opera is (to me) the desperate dilemma a pretty woman had in the 19th century, if she were poor or without supportive family. There was no easy way out. As it happens, pregnancy is not her problem, which is the middle-class moral code represented by Alfredo’s father and, eventually, by Violetta herself, when she accepts that Alfredo’s sister cannot marry the man she loves unless she (Violetta) gives up Alfredo. Because she is now ensnared by her powerful erotic love for Alfredo, the choice is an awful one, but she gives him up.
I’m sure there are those who will see the opera today and comment that things are different now. Well, they are, in that a modern Violetta would not die of TB. But it seems to me that women seem always to draw the short straw in this domain. They cannot have it all. They possess the capacity to love powerfully both to keep the father and to care for the children, and that leaves less time and energy for other things. I think I’m about right in saying that more than 85 per cent of single-parent families are led by women. Byron says somewhere that for a man love is a thing apart, but for a women it is her whole existence. You see that powerfully displayed in La Traviata, and there are innumerable contemporary versions of the dilemma.
Yes, our moral code today is much more relaxed and permissive, but that does not make the story of love and loss any easier.
Did I enjoy the production? Indeed so. I have seen the opera half a dozen times both here and overseas. It has great music and powerful tensions, all well realised in the present production. I thought Emma Matthews was a fine Violetta, and the role needs above all an actress, which she is. If I thought her vibrato or tremolo or trills were overdone, that was a small price to pay for a sustained and moving performance.