Everyone loves the hooker with a heart of gold. Everyone thinks they’ve found the hooker with a heart of gold. Nearly everyone’s wrong.
Alexandre Dumas “fils” (1824–1895) wrote about his experience with one of 19th century Paris’ most celebrated courtesans (polite talk for “prostitute”). They were actually called “femmes entretenues” (kept women). Their extravagant material “needs” usually supplied by much older men, who vied for their favors, usually several men for each woman.
The thinly disguised autobiographical novel is “La Dame aux camélias” (Camellia Lady). She was Marie Duplessis (1824–1847) and her life was cut short most likely by tuberculosis. She demanded and received camellias from her men, white ones about 25 days per month, and red ones the other 5 or 6, a subtle telegraphing of her menstrual cycle. One of her mottos was: “Lying keeps the teeth white.”
Dumas was the son (“fils” in French) of the celebrated author of “Les Trois mousquetaires” and “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo,” and we all know how difficult it may be to grow up in the shadow of a famous father. He was also a “fils naturel,” what we so inelegantly call a “bastard” in English. I suppose “illegitimate” is a better word, though no less insulting on some level. The French, however, have long accorded many more rights to these children than most other countries. Dumas the son was taken away from his mother by his famous daddy as an infant, something that may have contributed to the son’s returning to the theme of the tragic heroine time and again.
So, junior sowed some wild oats with Marie, and wrote about it the year after her death. Four years after that, he turned the book into a play, his most popular writing to date, and one that determined his future as a successful playwright. One year after the adaptation, having swept Europe, it came to the attention of Verdi and his librettist, who made the third-most performed opera of all time: “La Traviata.” Have you ever seen the movie “Camille” (1936) starring Greta Garbo? Same story.
The father of the boy whose true love turns the kept woman’s life around comes to her and begs her to dump his son, so that the son’s sister’s engagement won’t be ruined by the scandalous association. She does so, nobly, and too late the father realizes how good at heart she is. By the time the heartbroken son returns to her, with father’s blessing, she dies of the disease she’s had all along, a sickness that may have caused her to devote herself to a dissipated life with even more frenzy than usual.
There was no cure for tuberculosis until 1943. “Consumption” was the sort of blanket term for all “chest” diseases. The only partial remedy people had was the sanatorium, usually located in a mountain climate, the theory being that fresh air, rest, and a good diet would result in healing. Not bad holistic advice, actually, but far from a definitive cure.
Dumas’ novel takes place in the form of letters sent to the narrator. And there are letters “within” the letters. Since letter-reading isn’t exactly the most dramatic thing to put on stage, he tightened the story to show the narrative in his play. Then Piave, Verdi’s librettist, made it even more operatic by focusing on three key elements: Violetta’s party life, her capacity for true love and self-sacrifice, and her death scene.
Another difference in the novel, which begins with the auctioning of the woman’s possessions to satisfy debts, is the hyper-adolescent jealous fits both parties have over the least slight. “She” tells “him” right off the bat that she isn’t giving up her kept ways, because her financial obligations and her material wants are too great. “He” agrees, but then rages each time she entertains one of her old codgers.
One very dramatic scene in the novel, which is left out of the opera, is the exhumation of her body from a common grave to a proper tomb, which the young man requests and witnesses so he can “see her one more time”! You see, in the book unlike the opera, he arrived back in Paris too late to see her while she was still alive.
In the novel, Marguerite (name changed to Violetta in the opera) struggles over a passage in a piano piece, as have so many amateurs before her and since. The piece is one of the most famous of the time “Invitation to the Dance” (1819) by Carl Maria von Weber. It is a series of short waltzes, and the passage that gives her trouble involves a “quick” ornament followed by a series of running eighth notes, causing her to exclaim: “To the devil with Weber, pianos, and all music!” I always thought it was a shame that Verdi didn’t quote it in the opera.
Verdi said that “looks, soul, and a good stage presence” were musts for whoever was cast as Violetta. Good advice for most operas, one would think. He was unhappy about the cast at the famously unsuccessful premiere in 1853 at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. Verdi: “Was it my fault, or the singers’—time will tell.” One year later, with a few revisions, the opera became the hit that it still is. “A subject for our time!” Verdi called it, and one critic of his time also called it “a real musical and social revolution.” Many were shocked by the sympathetic depiction of a woman of easy virtue. Today, perhaps we are less shocked.
Verdi famously said that even “a nobody” could succeed in Traviata when pressed to comment on which of his operas was his favorite. What he probably meant was that the music and drama are so well-made that it will have an effect no matter what. He preferred the subtler acting required of Lady Macbeth, for instance. Violetta is a difficult role to cast today, because it requires a seeming “split” vocal personality: fire and quickness in the frenzied declaration of independence “Sempre libera!” and then fragility and very soft, almost broken singing in the deathbed scene “Addio del passato.”
Did you know Dumas coined the term “feminist” in 1872?
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
Frank Daykin says
Thank you for reading Jay! I try to vary the blog posts, to make them appealing to a “general” reader and not only to experts. The length determines the amount of detail that I can include. I hope you will continue to follow us here! Sincerely, Frank Daykin