Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

La Traviata and Oedipus

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

La Traviata and Oedipus

Article excerpt


La Traviata was first performed in Venice's Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853. Although the premiere itself was not a success, when it was re-presented at the Teatro San Benedetto, also in Venice, on 16 May 1854, it was to grand acclaim, and since then it has never left the repertoire, proving itself perhaps the most popular of all Verdi's operas. This paper is an attempt to explore some psychological aspects of its enduring appeal.

Musically, it has long enjoyed the status of a masterpiece. The two literary works on which it is based, the novel and play by Dumas fils both entitled La dame aux camelias (1848, 1852), are also literary and dramatic classics.

So what of the opera psychoanalytically? Recent opera-based IJP papers centre on some major aspect of psychopathology central to the dramatic action, focusing particularly on how the psychopathology might be illustrated by the music. Rusbridger (2008), for example, has explored the manic and murderous masquerade concealing the internal emptiness of the narcissist in Don Giovanni, and psychotic projective identification regarding envy and jealousy in Otello (Rusbridger, 2013); Hindle and Godsill (2006) have examined sanity and madness in Julietta; Bergstein (2013) has investigated the wish for annihilation in Tristan und Isolde; and Grier (2011) has discussed themes of sadism, sexual violence and voyeurism in Rigoletto.In comparison, what does La Traviata have to offer? Musicologists have written interestingly about the striking verisimilitude of this first depiction of a consumptive death in opera (Groos, 1995). Nobody, however, does anything very terrible to anybody else in this opera. At the centre there is a story of true love thwarted, by a father's interdiction on the lovers' liaison followed by the heroine's premature death from tuberculosis just when blue skies were beckoning again for the lovers - but, though tragic, these events might almost be described as mundane.

Quite by chance, as I was beginning to work on this paper an analytic patient spoke about the mesmerizing impression a performance of La Traviata had exerted on him the previous evening. Though quite cultured, he is generally anti-opera, cynical about the excesses, superficiality and sentimentality, as he sees it, of most Romantic music and of 19th century Italian opera in particular. But his partner had dragged him to the opera house, where he had been shocked at how he had been "ambushed" particularly by the long duet between Violetta and Germont. He said he had been as grabbed as if it had been Shakespeare. Whatever the particular implications for that particular analysis, I think my patient speaks for the experience of many in the audiences across the years.

Oedipus and La traviata

The psychological core of the opera - and I will argue that in it lies the secret of the opera's potency and universal appeal - resides in the Oedipal conflict emerging between the main characters, Violetta the courtesan, Alfredo Germont and his father, Giorgio Germont. (In this paper some familiarity with the opera will be taken as read, and, following convention, Alfredo will be referred to by his first name, whereas his father will be referred to by his surname, Germont.) The lovers, from different social classes, are separated by the law-giving father. This moment of paternal interdiction in Act II Scene 1 is the hub of the opera. All changes dramatically when Germont unexpectedly enters and confronts Violetta with the wider consequences of her protracted love-affair with his son: her prostitute status means his daughter will be unable to marry. He orders Violetta to leave Alfredo. She weeps, begs for mercy and for a more lenient sentence: she could separate from Alfredo for a while and rejoin him after the marriage. Germont remains adamant; their separation must be for ever. Grief-stricken, she obeys.

That is how not only the libretto reads, but also Dumas' novel and play. …

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