Romance and Remorse: Verdi's 'La Traviata'
If you spend much time reading about opera, you've probably seen comparisons between operas and movies and those are easy comparisons to make, as the two genres share any number of similarities.
In 19th-century Europe, operas were a popular form of large-scale, mass-market entertainment. They featured compelling drama, dazzling effects, stirring music and superstar performers — just like movies do today.
So it's not surprising that today we often see operas in the movies. Remember Cher attending La Boheme in Moonstruck, and Richard Gere taking Julia Roberts to La Traviata in Pretty Woman? There are plenty more examples, both among recent films and in cinematic classics.
One of those classics is the 1945 Oscar-winner The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland as an alcoholic writer. Milland's character, Don Birnam, is gamely trying to stay on the wagon, when he attends the opera with his lady friend. Unfortunately, they pick the wrong opera for a recovering alcoholic; it's a lavish production of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, which begins with one of the great drinking scenes of all time.
When Birnam sees this scene, his booze-driven imagination turns the performers on stage into dancing bottles and animated champagne glasses. Before long he's off to retrieve his coat — and with it his flask of rye whiskey.
Ultimately, the film portrays Birnam as a tragic victim of his own lifestyle, and in that he's a bit like the main character in La Traviata, Violetta Valery. And that's not the only similarity between the movie and the opera. When it was released, The Lost Weekend was noted for its disturbingly raw portrayal of people in their most desperate moments — at a time when movies were a largely escapist form of entertainment.
La Traviata was viewed the same way at its premiere in 1853. Verdi's masterpiece lacks many of the elements we often associate with blockbuster operas. It has no world-shaping political confrontations, no exotic historical settings and no eye-catching special effects — just believable characters whose own passions bring them to a sad end.
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