'Fallen woman' redeemed in opera

Giuseppe Verdi knew a thing or two about living by his own rules. As he became a famous composer, he returned to his hometown, bought the grandest villa on the square, and set up housekeeping - with a woman he hadn't married.

The townspeople were scandalized. Verdi thought they should mind their own business.

He had no use for snap judgments. So he was just the composer for "La Traviata," which Opera Carolina presents beginning Thursday.

"Fallen woman" is one translation of the title. But in Verdi's world, even someone outside the bounds of conventional morality can behave nobly enough to find redemption in audience's hearts. His music has turned Violetta, the heroine of "Traviata," into one of the most sympathetic characters in opera - right up there with Mimi from "La Boheme" and Madama Butterfly.

Real life: Violetta was based on an actual woman: Marie Duplessis, a darling of the 1840s Paris version of the party circuit. Thanks to her beauty, Duplessis was able to live on the support of wealthy men until, at only 23, she died of tuberculosis. One of her jilted admirers, the aspiring writer Alexandre Dumas - son of the author of the same name - transformed her into the heroine of a novel, then of a stage version that became a hit. Verdi saw the play and turned it into "Traviata." The premiere was seven years after Duplessis' death.

Selflessness: In both Dumas and Verdi, the heroine abandons her rich admirers and runs off with a young man who offers love rather than money. But when his father asks her to think of his family's reputation and leave him, she complies. Verdi understood the power of her sacrifice. He saw in the story, he wrote a friend, "a subject of our time. Another composer would not have done it.... But I did it with the greatest pleasure."

Resonance: Verdi understood life's gray areas. After being widowed at 26, he fell in love with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano who had starred in his "Nabucco" - the fiery opera that made Verdi famous. (Its throat-wrenching music helped destroy her voice, but she apparently didn't hold a grudge.) The pair's cohabitation was scandalizing their neighbors as Verdi composed "Traviata." A few years later, after more than a decade together, he and Giuseppina finally married.

Public and private: Giuseppina never appeared as Violetta. But the role became a magnet for sopranos and audiences alike. The bravura aria she sings as she imagines a life of freedom, "Sempre libera," epitomizes the union of musical fireworks and dramatic impact. In the last scene, after she thinks everything has gone against her, her last aria's fragile lyricism shows her summoning consolation from within. In Charlotte, soprano Jennifer Black, an alumnus of the Metropolitan Opera's young-artists program, will portray Violetta for her first time.

Return visit: Baritone Mark Rucker comes back to Opera Carolina to play Germont, father of Violetta's lover. Rucker last appeared at the Belk Theater in the title role of Verdi's "Macbeth." This time, rather than leaving a trail of blood, Rucker's character offers an outpouring of melody: one of the most beloved baritone arias in opera. In "Di Provenza," Germont consoles his son, who has just been jilted by Violetta - without understanding why - by describing the familial warmth that awaits him at home in Provence. You can almost hear the seashore's rippling waves and balmy sun in the music. "It's a great lyric piece," Rucker says.

Paternal instinct: Though Germont pushes Violetta and Alfredo apart, Rucker says, he isn't a mere villain. He's trying to look out for his family. Rucker says he can connect with that.

"I have a son and a daughter," Rucker says. "My son - who is a great guy - works for (Giorgio) Armani. So he sees all these models. The first thing he ever says is, 'She's hot.' 'Well,' I ask, 'Does she have a mind?'"