Robert Thicknesse outlines the plot of Verdi and Piave's tale of a courtesan's last hope of happiness, in rather rambunctious terms.
Act 1: Paris, 1850ish. Alfredo Germont, a young fellow fresh up in town from Provence, has developed a massive crush on Violetta, a top-dollar call-girl with dicky lungs, and (since her price-list rather exceeds his means) attends one of her parties and persuades her to fall in love with him.
Act 2: Violetta quits the night job and heads off with Alfredo to shack up in the country, and footing the bills, without his knowledge. Alfredo’s father Mr Germont pops up with a request for her to vacate the scene so his daughter can contract an advantageous marriage, which her liaison with Alfredo is jeopardising. Much to everyone’s surprise she says OK, zips off back to Paris and hooks up with her ex for a party at her friend Flora’s that evening.
Alfredo, unaware of daddy’s intervention, waylays Violetta at said party, thrashes the ex at an unspecified card game and furiously pays Violetta off with the winnings, eliciting widespread opprobrium. He also gets into a duel with the ex (outcome unknown).
Act 3: Weeks later, Violetta is dying. The ex is nowhere to be seen. Alfredo, who is finally up to speed, shows up. Too late. She dies.
Fancy that: Taken from Dumas’s La dame aux camélias, a semi-autobiographical tale of his youthful fling with a sickly courtesan (the title refers to her habit of wearing a red camellia on those days of the month when she was “not available”).
The opera has been dogged by a perceived incongruity between some prima donnas and the consumptive they portray, notably the “considerable” (20st 7lb) Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, who created the role, and Luisa Tetrazzini: John McCormack described the experience of lifting her off the bed in Act 3 as like “fondling a pair of Michelin tyres”.