“I am completely in love with the courtesans,” declares Ecuadoran stage director and composer Chía Patiño. “They are so aware of who they are.”
Patiño, who directed her first professional production of La traviata (her first was for Indiana University) at Florida Grand Opera this season, was well-prepared. She recently traveled to Paris, where she delved deeply into the opera’s fascinating world of the extravagant, glamourous 19th-century courtesans and their moneyed patrons. Patiño was inspired by what she found.
“I’ve been doing all this research, I need to feel it. That’s why I went to Paris,” she said. “The opera is very specific to a very specific time in a very specific city, ahead of the times in allowing women to educate themselves and move forward despite the class they were born in.” Those women, she said, were born into abject poverty and limited opportunities, but they were “strong enough to defy society, very exceptional, and there was a way to get out.”
That way was to become a courtesan, a sex worker who occupied the highest rungs of society and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, supported by a series of wealthy, frequently aristocratic lovers who had no qualms about appearing in public with their mistresses. “If they managed to make it, they became some of the most powerful women in their time,” Patiño said. “They educated themselves. It’s insane to see the amount of self-perception that they have as women. And they don’t have pity for themselves.”
“She’s not lost.”
Patiño spoke admiringly of Marie Duplessis, the real courtesan on whom La traviata’s Violetta is based). Despite a horrific childhood, much of which was spent without sufficient food or housing under the thumb of an abusive father who sold her to an old man at age 13, Marie made her way to Paris and established herself as an up-and-coming courtesan. “She specifically had a lover who decided to shape her, a little bit of a My Fair Lady situation, and allowed her to learn to read and write. This is a girl who didn’t know how to read and write until she was 16. And then there are her letters, and her library was like 200 books. “
“I really don’t like the title La traviata, The Lost One, because I think she knows where she’s going,” Patiño insisted. “She’s not lost. She knows so well where she wants to go. She’s one of the smart ones. If health had been given to her, she would have reached the top.”
Patiño is known for reimagining settings to better contextualize them for modern audiences. Florida Grand Opera’s production is traditional, but that doesn’t conflict with Patiño’s aesthetics. “I really believe in communicating with the audience in the place that they are and where we are living,” she said. “It’s very important to me because that’s how music speaks, I think. Because I trained as a composer, I’m also very much intrigued in what the composer’s goal was. I think many times we forget how relevant and of the time the story of La traviata was.” Due to the racy subject matter and fear of censorship, La traviata was originally set a century before its action takes place. Audiences couldn’t connect with the setting, which contributed to the failure of the premiere. Patiño was determined that South Florida audiences would not face the same challenge with her storytelling. She invoked the 1990 film Pretty Woman, which was inspired by the opera and features scenes from it. “The movie stops when they (Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) get together. We know society wouldn’t accept knowing that (Vivian, the Julia Roberts character) is a prostitute, so that fact would be hidden.”
“It’s a beautiful party.”
Patiño planned many small details gleaned from research to tell Violetta’s story, starting with the opening scene.
“I completely love Verdi, but in the first scene, Violetta’s party, a courtesan’s house, there would be 80% men and very few women. The men in the chorus will be older. People with power are usually the older guys, 50-60-70 years old. The girls are young and beautiful. There are some young students sneaking in like Alfredo, who can’t afford to keep women like Violetta. But most of the guys are much older guys, really rich.”
In many productions, Violetta’s party is presented as if it were a high society fête of the day. Patiño said
this is inaccurate. “It is a beautiful party, but it’s also a sexual innuendo party, because everybody’s trying to see ‘oh, is this right lover for me’ without apology, which I love. It needs to be a party that is a little bit out of control.”
Courtesans like Violetta and her friend Flora Bervoix, she said, competed to see who could give the most extravagant, glamourous parties as a marketing strategy to attract equally extravagant clients. Real-life courtesan Cora Pearl was famous for escapades like greeting party guests in a champagne-filled bathtub in the middle of her salon and having herself served to them on a giant silver platter along with the appetizers. “If I had permission, that’s where I would go,” Patiño said. “Flora’s party in Act III would be that crazy. That’s the way it was.” The FGO production is not quite as over the top, but Patiño plotted with the props department for certain touches to get the idea across.
Still, it’s not all about revelry. Ultimately, La traviata is the tale of a very ill young woman who understands that she will die soon. “Even in the first act, she knows she’s sick,” said Patiño. The audience can expect to see medicine bottles secreted about the stage. Marie Duplessis, the inspiration for Violetta, spent a fortune on cures. “She’s in love with life. She wants to live. We need to see that she’s fighting this. Everything that she could be doing, she’s doing.”
“I am not forgiving Alfredo.”
Relationships with the opera’s minor characters will also be more realistic than they are sometimes portrayed. “Annina, Violetta’s maid, they always make her an old maid. I’m keeping her young and beautiful. The courtesans many times have a good friend that they can trust as a helper. It’s someone she can still talk to,” Patiño said. “Flora is close to Violetta instead of a rival. They understand each other.”
What of the opera’s other two central characters, Violetta’s lover, Alfredo and his stern father, Germont?
“I am not forgiving Alfredo, “Patiño said firmly. “Violetta is the one keeping him, and even so he thinks he has the right to tell her how to live her life. I don’t like that.” She has no sympathy for Germont, either. “I think we forgive the father too fast. I think he comes to see her at the end because he keeps his promises. He’s a gentleman in that way, he does what he says he would do. But if she was healthy, I think he would have a problem with Alfredo staying with her. No matter how noble she is, she’s still not an aristocrat.”
Ironically, it’s Violetta’s illness that allows her to risk trading in her high lifestyle for love, because she has no future. “The one thing the courtesans knew they were not is loved,” Patiño said. “When Violetta says, ‘That is would come at this point in my life’ — because she knows she is dying — ‘that I might be loved while loving, that is a gift.’ And that’s why I think we love this story so much, that she desperately loved, and Alfredo in a very childish way also falls in love. For Violetta, she falls in love, she risks everything, she loses everything, but she loves. And that’s a triumph.”