Atto I. Paris, in mid-18th century. There is a great party in the house of Violetta Valéry, a well-known prostitute: this is how she stifles the anguish that torments her, since she knows that her health is gravely undermined. A nobleman, Gastone, introduces to her his friend Alfredo, who sincerely admires her. The interest Violetta shows for the new acquaintance does not escape the attention of Duphol, her current lover. While Violetta and Alfredo dance, he declares his love for her and Violetta gives him a flower, a camellia: she will see Alfredo again when the flower has withered. The festivities concluded, Violetta has to admit that for the first time, she has truly fallen in love.
Alfredo and Violetta have abandoned the city and are living happily together in a villa in the country. But when he learns from the servant-girl Annina that Violetta is selling her jewels because they have no more money, he rushes off to Paris to find some. Violetta's friend Flora invites her to a party, but she does not want to go and, staying at home, unexpectedly receives a visit from Alfredo's father Giorgio Germont. He accuses her of dragging his son into misery, but Violetta denies this, showing him that it is she who is selling her precious jewels and affirms that she has never asked Alfredo for anything. Giorgio seems convinced, but remains firm in his intent to separate Alfredo and Violetta. Their relationship is considered scandalous and as long as it continues, the other daughter cannot be married. Violetta must choose, and does what she believes to be the best for her beloved.
She abandons him, but he becomes blinded by jealousy. Violetta goes to a party once more accompanied by Duphol, who wants to challenge Alfredo to a duel. Violetta implores Alfredo to leave the house; he will go only if she goes with him.
She reveals to him that she has sworn not to see him and lets him think this oath was made to Duphol, in order not to have to tell him of the encounter with his father about Alfredo's sister. Alfredo is indignant and treats her like a prostitute. Giorgio arrives and rebukes him for his behaviour, but does not tell him the whole truth.
The illness undermining Violetta's health has worsened considerably. The woman is confined to her bed, too weak to rise. A letter from Germont arrives: finally, he has decided to explain everything to his son.
Alfredo is touched with pity and is on his way. Violetta is incredibly happy, but, for her, there is no more time; she fears she will not last until his arrival. But at last, there he is, at her side. His father has also come, profoundly regretting his conduct.
Tuberculosis kills Violetta before their eyes, in an atmosphere of extreme sorrow, softened only by the delicacy and purity of their emotions.
At the beginning of the 1850's Verdi was looking for a soprano for a difficult role, and communicated to the director of the Fenice in Venice Carlo Marzari, to need a "woman in the prime of her strength". The subject necessitating such a special singer had been taken by Verdi from a much discussed dramatic work by Alexandre Dumas fils. La Dame aux Camélias is the story of a real person, Alphonsine Duplessis, a young courtesan who had taken up a life of vice in the Paris of the 1840s and whom Dumas had known, transformed by him into Marguerite Gautier. Verdi saw the play on a Paris stage in 1851.
By 1852 the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave was ready, entitled La traviata, but the censorship imposed a change of title to Amore e morte and a setting not so close to real time, safely pushed back by at least a century. The clamorous failure of the première in Venice at La Fenice may be attributed to numerous factors: the singers were not suitable for the parts, including the protagonist, who, without a doubt, did not have the "strength" Verdi had required; the contemporaneous setting, insisted on by Verdi but not appreciated by the public; the scandalous subject and the novel score.
Only a year later, presented at the San Benedetto Theatre in Venice, was the opera a success: the cast was a good one and the setting, changed to the 1700s, was more to the liking of the audience of the time.