Theatre Thursdays: La Traviata and the Shadowbox

Last month I went to see the opera La Traviata because my friend was performing in its chorus. Now, I never used to like opera. I was annoyed with how difficult it is to understand the words opera singers are singing, even when they’re in English. And I had been negatively affected by the stereotype of the “fat lady in horns”, which is, I think, a very ugly way of singing.

Violetta and maids

Pictured: Not a fat lady in horns.
This is a picture of the main character from the production I actually saw.

Well, I don’t hate opera anymore.

For this production, the problem of translation was solved by the recent trend of “supertitling”, which is projecting translations of the singers’ lyrics above the stage (in this case, from the original Italian into English). And the style of singing was much more beautiful than what I had been expecting. As my opera singer friend explained to me later, opera spans a very wide range of history and musical styles, so it appears I have found one I like. But none of that is why I really loved this opera. More after the break!

First, a synopsis. The eponymous “la traviata” (fallen woman) is Violetta, a high-class courtesan in 1700s Paris. Her life is a whirlwind of parties, pleasures, and enjoyment, though she begins to feel lonely in the “desert of Paris”, convinced that no one truly loves her. Enter Alfredo, who, at the party that forms the opera’s first scene, declares his love for her. He had inquired after her health every day while she was bedridden with some illness that remains unnamed.

Party from Act II of La Traviata

Whoo! Party at Violetta’s house! (from a production at the Met)

After some back-and-forth and internal conflict, we learn in Act II that Violetta has decided to accept Alfredo’s love and go and live with him in the countryside. She is finally truly happy, but to support their expensive life there, she has been secretly selling off her property. When Alfredo finds out, he rushes off to the city to earn some money so Violetta doesn’t have to do that anymore. While he’s gone, his father visits Violetta and implores her to leave Alfredo. Because of the scandal of Alfredo living out of wedlock with a former courtesan, his sister’s fiancé is threatening to leave her. After much agony, Violetta finally agrees to leave Alfredo for his family’s sake.

By the time Alfredo returns, Violetta has run off to another party (the first one she’s been to since embarking on her new life with Alfredo) with another man. She has left Alfredo a letter that apparently says she doesn’t love him anymore, and when he reads it, he rushes to the party in a rage. At the party, Violetta tells Alfredo she loves this other man now. Alfredo challenges him to a duel. We never get to see the duel, but Alfredo does beat him at cards and throws his winnings at Violetta. It’s all quite tragic.

But it’s nothing compared to the final scene, in which Violetta is bedridden with that mysterious illness from earlier, with only a few hours left to live. She holds close to a letter from Alfredo’s father, in which he reassures her that Alfredo won the duel uninjured, that he told Alfredo the truth about Violetta’s apparent betrayal, and that Alfredo is on his way back to her. But as she sings in anguish, “It’s late!” Alfredo finally shows up, and they sing a heart-wrenching duet, culminating in Violetta’s death.

This still doesn’t explain why I loved this opera so much. You see, the director made an interesting thematic choice to unite the whole production with the image of a shadowbox. He added a scene to the beginning in which a little boy is chasing a butterfly. His father helps him to catch it, and puts it in a shadowbox, pinning it to the back of the box and killing it in the process. The father thinks this will please the boy, but no, he’s sad; he may have the butterfly in a box now, but it’s no longer alive, no longer free. It’s not hard to see how Violetta is the butterfly, Alfredo is the little boy, and Alfredo’s father is the boy’s father.

butterfly shadowbox

An example of a shadowbox.

But just in case we didn’t get it, the first scene (Violetta’s party) begins behind panes of glass. In the director’s notes, the director wrote about how the life of a celebrated courtesan in Verdi—the composer’s—time was like that of a butterfly in a shadowbox: a spectacle of beauty, but only admired from afar, not allowed to live a full, free life. Courtesans may have been allowed a modicum more power than most other women of that time, but they were still not allowed to deviate from their lives of meaningless pleasure, or considered fit to pursue true love, or to be loved.

For Violetta, though, the constant image of the shadowbox does not end when she chooses to give up her life as a courtesan and live with Alfredo instead. The shadowbox is still literally present, sitting on a table in their house. And as she sings when Alfredo’s father accuses her of shaming his family, “God may have forgiven me, but man never will.” The burden must fall on her to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of her man. She is still trapped in the shadowbox after all.

The party she flees to takes place against a backdrop of a symmetrical pattern that looks like it could be a Rorschach inkblot, or some sort of abstract butterfly, so the image yet endures, as does Violetta’s imprisonment.

The last scene, though, is the real killer (pun intended). To the left and right of Violetta’s sickbed are two floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Violetta never passes outside of these walls, and no one crosses them to approach her, not even the doctor, and no, not even Alfredo. They reach for each other from opposite sides of the glass, and I kept begging him in my head to just go to her, to let her feel his arms around her one last time before she died. Nope. No such luck. No one crossed that boundary of her glass prison, and Violetta was left to die alone. The director stayed true to his shadowbox image, and it really struck me.

But nothing compares to Violetta’s dying moment. In typical dramatic fashion, she declares that her pain is gone. Then she stands on her bed, arms outstretched (like Jesus, like a butterfly with its wings open wide), and as the last fateful chords play, darkness falls, a final pane of glass closes off the front of the scene, and a huge illuminated image of a butterfly appears behind her.

Wow. Might as well have just pinned my heart to the wall too.

I expected the butterfly to reappear then, representing her soul flying free. Nope. No such luck with that, either. Once the butterfly’s dead, it’s dead.

The reason this emotional image of the shadowbox worked so well in this opera is that it pinned (pun intended again) the blame solely on society—specifically, on the men of this patriarchal society—for Violetta’s plight. It would have been easy for the audience in Verdi’s time to blame Violetta for everything, to see her tragic ending as just punishment for her sins as a “fallen woman”. But in this production’s opening scene, it was a boy who desired the butterfly, and a man who killed it. And as I showed above, Violetta never escapes from this patriarchal box that pins her as a beautiful prize, not even in her dying moments. She is continually forced to suffer, while the men remain free and unscathed.

No one ever accuses her male clients of being “fallen men”. Alfredo’s father is arguably the greatest villain in the story, yet he never receives punishment. And Alfredo? Why doesn’t he die of Violetta’s disease as well? It’s usually assumed that her illness is tuberculosis, but the opera never actually says, and besides, in Verdi’s day, tuberculosis was literary code for “STI”. Alfredo should definitely have it, but nope, he’s a man, so he’ll be fine. A little heartbroken, perhaps, but he never has to be pinned inside a box. The stylistic choice of the shadowbox image highlights the injustice of all this, so that instead of thinking these unpunished men are simply a result of bad writing, we realize the whole society is structured to allow this to happen. And that is the real tragedy.

If you ever go to see La Traviata, chances are it won’t have the same shadowbox imagery used in the small, university-based production I saw. But I want you to keep it in mind anyway. Keep in mind the shadowboxes that exist in our culture. What are the things in our own lives that pin people into little boxes? And what can we do to help the butterflies fly free? La Traviata was certainly a feels-fest, but it got me thinking about the pain behind social justice issues, too, and I couldn’t ask for more from a story.