Massimo Zicari, “Un caso di moralità: La Traviata nella Londra Vittoriana (1856)”, Musica/Realtà, n. 103, luglio 2014
The London premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata took place on 24 May 1856 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, featuring Marietta Piccolomini in the title role, Vincenzo Calzolari as Alfredo Germont, and Federico Beneventano as Giorgio Germont.
According to the theatre manager, Benjamin Lumley, the enthusiasm created by the prima donna was immense and spread like wild-fire. “Once more frantic crowds struggled in the lobbies of the theatre, once more dresses were torn and hats crushed in the conflict, once more a mania possessed the public. Marietta Piccolomini became the ‘rage’”. Although not every critic seemed to agree on Piccolomini possessing all those vocal as well as dramatic qualities that would justify the unconditional applause that opera-goers were bestowing upon her, Lumley’s recollections find ample confirmation in contemporary reviews; even those commenters who showed themselves to be the least lenient towards Piccolomini could not but admit that a true frenzy accompanied her successful appearance as Violetta in London.
But La Traviata in Victorian London represents also an unprecedented case of morality, for the social issues related to women and morality soon came to assume a special significance in the critical debate. Not only was the libretto said to be offensive because of the public representation of prostitution, but also because it made sin look more appealing than virtue especially when wrapped up in soft sounding lines and seductive vocalization. Surprisingly enough, the discussion did not explode in coincidence with the premiere, but two months later, when an article that had made its first appearance on 2 August in the columns of The Spectator was reproduced by The Times two days afterwards. This circumstance led to a critical debate focussing on the issue of morality, leaving the question concerning Verdi’s compositional progress completely neglected.