Although it would be simplistic to suggest that Verdi’s Violetta was directly inspired by his real-life lover Giuseppina Strepponi, there is plenty of evidence that the composer was angered by society’s double-standards of sexual morality – double-standards of which he became all-too-aware through his relationship with Giuseppina.
Theirs was a long-term and mostly happy partnership commencing in the mid-1840s in Paris (where Strepponi, a soprano, had retired at the age of only 31 following a successful singing career) and spanning nearly 50 years. Scandalously, they co-habited for over a decade before eventually marrying in 1859.
When the couple moved to the town of Bussetto, where he had lived with his first wife Margherita Barrezi, Verdi was taken to task by the vicar and other local grandees for his ‘immoral’ behaviour. However, it was Strepponi who was subjected to the bulk of the abuse, with the townspeople leaving her to sit conspicuously alone in church, shouting abuse as she passed and even throwing stones in the street.
It is not a great leap to imagine that the judgemental treatment of Strepponi by Verdi’s self-righteous neighbours loomed large during the composition of La Traviata in the early 1850s. In a now-famous letter to his father-in-law, written in 1851 in response to Barrezi senior’s plea that the couple marry, it is striking how much importance Verdi places on their independence and refusal to justify themselves to anyone, as well as the respect due to Giuseppina; “In my house there lives a lady, free, independent, who, like me, prefers a solitary life and who has the means to satisfy her every need. Neither I, nor she, owes anyone an account of our actions; and who knows what our relations are? What are our business affairs? What are the ties between us? What rights I have over her and she over me? Who knows whether or not she is my wife? And if she is, who knows what reasons or ideas there may be for not announcing it publicly? Who knows if it is good or bad? Could it not be a good thing? And even if it were a bad thing, who has the right to damn us? I will say this however: in my house she is entitled to as much respect as myself - more even, and no one is allowed to forget that on any account. And finally she has every right, both on account of her conduct and her character, to the consideration she never fails to show to others."
Giuseppina Strepponi was not a courtesan, or even a ‘kept woman’ (note Verdi’s emphasis of her financial independence; she ‘has the means to satisfy her every need’ – therefore if she has chosen to live with him, it is not because she is being paid to do so). However, as a stage performer and the mother of at least three illegitimate children, by the standards of the time she would certainly not have been welcome in polite society, or considered worth marrying.
The fact that Verdi clearly loved and respected Giuseppina, and that he resisted the demands of ‘morality’ while insisting on her good character and independence, undermines an interpretation of La Traviata in which Georgio Germont is a sympathetic character. Germont represents the hypocritical society which condemns Violetta and grants her no possibility of redemption (in this world at least), and he presses on with his insistence that she leave Alfredo even after he acknowledges both her nobility of character and the fact that she is dying. An analysis of Germont as a sensitive soul who appreciates Violetta’s qualities but - in wanting the best for his family - has no choice but to insist that Violetta leave Alfredo, is surely subverted by Verdi and Strepponi’s story. It is heart-warming to think of the couple as an alternative ‘happy ending’ version of Violetta and Alfredo, who resisted immense pressure from a judgmental world and lived a quiet, contented life together for decades.
By Robin Norton-Hale
Artistic Director of OperaUpClose