Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi

Poster for La Traviata, London, 1864, from the East London Theatre Archive

Act II of Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata (1853) contains one of the greatest scenes in opera. It is a confrontation between the courtesan Violetta and the father of her lover Alfredo Germont. Alfredo's father has come to demand that Violetta break off her affair with his son: it is damaging not only Alfredo's own prospects and reputation, but those of Alfredo's sister. She is engaged to the son of a wealthy family who are disturbed by the rumors that are reaching them of Alfredo's involvement with Violetta.

At first the elder Germont is peremptory, and Violetta is defiant. But he soon realizes that she truly loves his son, and is touched in spite of himself. He then makes an emotional appeal to her on behalf of his daughter, and Violetta realizes that she must sacrifice her own happiness to protect that of her lover and his family. From mutual hostility, their conversation moves to understanding and then deep sympathy. At the end, the elder Germont understands how badly he has misjudged Violetta, and both are in tears.

Here is an excerpt of this scene taken from the 1994 Covent Garden production by Richard Eyre conducted by Sir Georg Solti, with Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta and Leo Nucci as Germont:


In Anthony Trollope's novel The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), the wealthy Archdeacon Grantly learns that his widower son Henry has proposed marriage to Grace Crawley, the daughter of an impoverished and disgraced local parson who is under suspicion for the theft of a check for twenty pounds. He goes to meet her in order to separate them forever:
'Of course you must understand, Miss Crawley, that I should not venture to speak to you on this subject unless I myself were very closely interested in it.' He had not yet said what was the subject, and it was not probable that Grace should give him any assistance by affecting to understand this without direct explanation from him. She sat quite motionless, and did not even aid him by showing by her altered colour that she understood his purpose. 'My son has told me,' said he, 'that he has professed an attachment for you, Miss Crawley.'

Then there was another pause, and Grace felt that she was compelled to say something. 'Major Grantly has been very good to me,' she said, and then she hated herself for having uttered words which were so tame and unwomanly in their spirit. Of course her lover's father would despise her for having so spoken. After all it did not much signify. If he would only despise her and go away, it would perhaps be for the best.

'I do not know about being good,' said the archdeacon. 'I think he is good. I think he means to be good.'

'I am sure he is good,' said Grace warmly.

'You know he has a daughter, Miss Crawley?'

'Oh, yes; I know Edith well.'

'Of course his first duty is to her. Is it not? and he owes much to his family. Do you not feel that?'

'Of course I feel it, sir.' The poor girl had always heard Dr Grantly spoken of as the archdeacon, but she did not in the least know what she ought to call him.

'Now, Miss Crawley, pray listen to me; I will speak to you very openly. I must speak to you openly, because it is my duty on my son's behalf—but I will endeavour to speak to you kindly also. Of yourself I have heard nothing but what is favourable, and there is no reason as yet why I should not respect and esteem you.' Grace told herself that she would do nothing which ought to forfeit his respect and esteem, but that she did not care two straws whether his respect and esteem were bestowed on her or not. She was striving after something very different from that. 'If my son were to marry you, he would greatly injure himself, and would very greatly injure his child.' Again he paused. He had told her to listen, and she was resolved that she would listen—unless he would say something which might make a word from her necessary at the moment. 'I do not know whether there does at present exist any engagement between you.'

'There is no engagement, sir.'

'I am glad of that—very glad of it....Now, Miss Crawley, of course I cannot wish to say a word that will hurt your feelings. But there are reasons—'

'I know,' said she, interrupting him. 'Papa is accused of stealing money. He did not steal it, but people think he did. And then we are so very poor.'

'You do understand me then—and I feel grateful; I do indeed.'

'I don't think our being poor ought to signify a bit,' said Grace. 'Papa is a gentleman, and a clergyman, and mamma is a lady.'

'But, my dear—'

'I know I ought not to be your son's wife as long as people think that papa stole the money. If he had stolen it, I ought never to be Major Grantly's wife—or anybody else's. I know that very well. And as for Edith—I would sooner die than do anything that would be bad to her.'

The archdeacon had now left the rug, and advanced till he was almost close to the chair on which Grace was sitting. 'My dear,' he said,' what you say does you very much honour—very much honour indeed.' Now that he was close to her, he could look into her eyes, and he could see the exact form of her features, and could understand—could not help understanding—the character of her countenance. It was a noble face, having in it nothing that was poor, nothing that was mean, nothing that was shapeless. It was a face that promised infinite beauty, with a promise that was on the very verge of fulfilment. There was a play about her mouth as she spoke and a curl in her nostrils as the eager words came from her, which almost made the selfish father give way. Why had they not told him that she was such a one as this?...

'What you say does you very much honour indeed,' said the archdeacon.

'I should not mind at all about being poor,' said Grace.

'No; no; no,' said the archdeacon.

'Poor as we are—and no clergyman, I think, was ever so poor—I should have done as your son asked me at once, if it had been only that—because I love him.'

'If you love him you will not wish to injure him.'

'I will not injure him. Sir, there is my promise.' And now as she spoke she rose from her chair, and standing close to the archdeacon, laid her hand very lightly on the sleeve of his coat. 'There is my promise. As long as people say that papa stole the money, I will never marry your son. There.'

The archdeacon was still looking down at her, and feeling the slight touch of her fingers, raised his arm a little as though to welcome the pressure. He looked into her eyes, which were turned eagerly towards his, and when doing so was quite sure that the promise would be kept. It would have been a sacrilege—he felt that it would have been a sacrilege—to doubt such a promise. He almost relented. His soft heart, which was never very well under his own control, gave way so far that he was nearly moved to tell her that, on his son's behalf, he acquitted her of the promise. What could any man's son do better than have such a woman for his wife? It would have been of no avail had he made her such offer. The pledge she had given had not been wrung from her by his influence, nor could his influence have availed aught with her towards the alteration of her purpose. It was not the archdeacon who had taught her that it would not be her duty to take disgrace into the house of the man she loved. As he looked down upon her face two tears formed themselves in his eyes, and gradually trickled down his old nose. 'My dear,' he said, 'if this cloud passes away from you, you shall come to us and be our daughter.' And thus he also pledged himself. There was a dash of generosity about the man, in spite of his selfishness, which always made him desirous of giving largely to those who gave largely to him. He would fain that his gifts should be bigger, if it were possible. He longed at this moment to tell her that the dirty cheque should go for nothing. He would have done it, I think, but that it was impossible for him to speak in her presence of that which moved her so greatly.

He had contrived that her hand should fall from his arm into his grasp, and now for a moment he held it. 'You are a good girl,' he said—'a dear, dear, good girl. When this cloud has passed away, you shall come to us and be our daughter.'

'But it will never pass away,' said Grace.
—Chapter 57, "A Double Pledge"

The parallels between these two scenes are striking. I have looked for evidence that Trollope might have seen performances of La Traviata, and have found it. From late 1859 Trollope lived in Waltham Cross, a suburb of London, and London productions of La Traviata in 1860, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864 and 1866 are documented. The 1864 production at the Standard Theatre (see the playbill above) is advertised as using "Boosey's Edition," which had both an Italian and English text. The cast of that production is largely English except for one "Madame Tonenelier" (probably Tonnelier) as Violetta; and although the character names are not Anglicized, my suspicion is that on this occasion the opera was sung in English. The 1866 Italian-language production featured 24-year-old Aglaja Orgeni as Violetta. An anonymous reviewer in The Musical World of April 14, 1866 wrote that "She is young, has a graceful stage presence, abundance of feeling, and unmistakable intelligence. Then in her voice—especially the pure soprano tones, which are at once clear, resonant, and sweet—there is a freshness which of itself is an indefinable charm." [1]


Aglaja Orgeni in 1865, by Anselm Feuerbach

Even more suggestive is the chronology of the composition of The Last Chronicle. According to Mary Hamer, the discoverer of Trollope's working diary for this novel, it was begun on January 21, 1866, and finished on September 15, 34 weeks later. [2] Unfortunately I have not been able to track down a facsimile of the diary, but Trollope's writing habits were generally very regular. Extrapolating from these dates, Trollope would have reached Chapter 57 after about 23 weeks of writing, or in early July—after the spring performances of La Traviata.

There are a surprising number of references to opera in Trollope's work, suggesting a continuing awareness of and interest in opera on the writer's part. Characters in The Kellys and O'Kellys (1848), The Bertrams (1859), Framley Parsonage (1861), and The Last Chronicle itself attend and/or mention opera, as do characters in the later novels He Knew He was Right (1869) and The Eustace Diamonds (1873). A character in The Landleaguers (1883) is an opera singer.

Even if Trollope didn't personally attend the April performances of La Traviata, by the mid-1860s he was an established member of London's literary and artistic circles, and—shortly after the highly successful Covent Garden debut of Mlle. Orgeni—the opera would surely have been in his awareness.

Of course, we may never know definitively whether Trollope had seen performances of Verdi's work (or of Alexandre Dumas' play La dame aux camelias/Camille (1852), on which Francesco Maria Piave based the opera's libretto). But even though the evidence is circumstantial, I strongly suspect that the connection is real.

--

1. "Royal Italian Opera." The Musical World, April 14, 1866, p. 232.

2. Mary Hamer, "Working Diary for The Last Chronicle of Barset," Times Literary Supplement, December 24, 1971, p. 1606.

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