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Verdi's 'La Traviata' draws from a true courtesan's tale

Only some of opera's heroes and heroines are distant mythological figures.

Many operas sought to portray real life. Some, such as Giuseppe Verdi's popular opera "La Traviata," are even based on a real people.

Pittsburgh Opera music director Antony Walker, who will conduct "La Traviata" to open the company's season, thought it would be more of a challenge to return to this opera than it has proved to be. It's been 10 years since he last worked on it.

When he was in Paris recently, he visited the grave of Marie Deplussis, the woman whose life inspired the novel and play that led to "La Traviata." In the opera, she is called Violetta Valery. Visiting her grave re-awakened the conductor's interest in the story behind the opera.

"The fact that this beautiful, talented and intelligent young woman died at 23, younger than our resident artist sopranos, is very moving," Walker says.

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of "La Traviata" starting Saturday at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

The production's sets and costumes were designed by Desmond Heeley for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"It is a period production, 1840s-'50s, but has somewhat of a surreal quality about the design that makes it not look like an old production," says stage director Crystal Manich. "I think it's a fantastic example of what a good designer should be."

Her goal is to bring out the relationships between the characters and the nuances of who they are. Manich says she draws a lot on the sources Francesco Maria Piave used to write his libretto for Verdi -- the novel "La Dame aux Camellias" (The Lady of the Camellias") by Alexandre Dumas Jr. and the play he adapted from it.

Dumas was inspired to write his novel by Duplessis, a famous courtesan who had been his mistress. She was 23 when she died of tuberculosis on Feb. 23, 1847. The first performance of "La Traviata" followed in 1853.

Dumas described her in the preface to a late edition of the play, 20 years after her death, as "tall, very thin, dark-haired and with pink and white complexion. Her head was small, her eyes slanting like a Japanese woman but lively and alert. Her lips were the colors of cherries and she had the most beautiful teeth in the world. She was like a (porcelain) figurine."

Manich is adding many bouquets of camellias to the opera's first-act party scene because those flowers make a statement.

"She wore camellias all the time," Manich says. "What you have to understand is that they were very expensive flowers, surely a sign of wealth because they die at the end of the day. They last only 24 hours.

"I really wanted to bring out that image as an homage to the actual woman and her interest not only to satisfy herself, but also to show her wealth as the most successful courtesan of her time."

Soprano Anna Samuil, who portrays Violetta in this production, made a spectacular local debut in 2009 starring as Tatiana in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

"I'm happy that I'm able to sing such different roles, because vocally they are absolutely different," Samuil says. "Violetta is a much more coloratura role, much more virtuoso and much higher. On the other hand, Violetta doesn't require such an intense sound, such intense vocal emission."

Samuil is Russian, and seriously multilingual as singers need to be. Her Benedum Center debut was in Russian. She returns singing in Italian. She lives in Berlin, where she sings regularly with the German State Opera. She is particularly happy to be performing such roles by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro," Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni" and Fiordiligi in "Cosi Fan Tutte."

Walker returns to conducting "La Traviata" with a fresh musical perspective.

"I've done a lot of bel-canto repertoire, Rossini and Donizetti, since I last conducted 'La Traviata.' It makes more sense if you look at it forward from bel canto," than back from later Verdi operas, he says.

"Just working with the chorus, all the articulation is quite short and fresh, as Verdi laboriously printed in his parts. The melodies have bel-canto sweetness and the cabalettas (the fast final section of an aria) have amazing energy. Later Verdi is more lyrical and lush and more dramatic.

"In 'La Traviata,' a lot of the first act is more vibrant and elegant. I love that about 'La Traviata.' "

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Additional Information:

'La Traviata'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Opera

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Oct. 18, 8 p.m. Oct. 21 and 2 p.m. Oct. 23.

Admission: $10.75-$195.75

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org

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