The Lady of the Camellias

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I once asked a most discriminating gentleman, who had studied singing, which opera he would call his favorite. He named  La traviata. Since then, René Weis has lent support to his opinion at fascinating length in his book, The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis (2015). In demonstrating the worth and intensity of Verdi’s opera in fine detail, he has spared nothing in elaborating the historical context of the inspiring, even legendary woman who rose so far above the station into which she was born.

To acquaint oneself with Marie Duplessis, whose grave is still visited in the cemetery in Montmartre, is to be stunned by the story of her rise from humble circumstances, and by the violence of her father, who beat her mother and raped and pimped her. At an early age she went to the city to survive, and quickly realized that a prostitute or courtesan who struck the right tone could prosper and even thrive much better than a working girl who could barely afford to feed herself. Only a few years later, in 1847, Marie Duplessis was to die of tuberculosis at the age of 23, leaving behind a superb wardrobe, a collection of art and furniture, and other valuables. 

She had overcome her circumstances in a doubtful, degraded, and even dangerous way, but she had a host of admirers—she even married a French count in England. She created a certain stature and attitude that elevated the sex trade to a social exploration—a well-funded adventure, even an education. Her clients were her lovers and her sources of wealth. She created the opportunity to rise above her station, and she provoked and endowed Alexandre Dumas fils, one of her lovers, to recreate this quite real and actual woman as the heroine of The Lady of the Camellias, a bestselling Roman à clef which was then remodeled as a play. 

The former Alphonsine Plessis, who had created herself out of whole cloth, was the toast of Paris. She didn’t give any thought to educating herself about art and all things beautiful, about the equestrian world, about high fashion that demanded distinctive taste, nor even about the structures and nuances of language. And still she was the most bewitching woman in Paris, and with hardly any education, she was one of the best spoken of glamorous women—she was said to have never made a grammatical error. Her correspondence is elegant and courteous to a fault.

This courtesan of the highest class was a perfect lady in many ways—and she was also a legend in her own time, to such a degree that even nearing 200 years later, she is not forgotten. But we must ask, to which “she” are we referring? She took various forms: the girl who was grossly abused and sent away to scrounge for herself; the girl of the streets who found a way out of them; the young lady whose beauty and kindness in her brief maturity affected everyone she met; and finally, the victim of disease—one who probably would have died of syphilis if she had not died of tuberculosis first, or one who might have even been murdered by some jealous lover. These are all the creation of the woman herself, or of speculation that she herself inspired or provoked. 

In another sense, we must also admit that she had exemplary instruction in diction and conversation as well as a general cultural tour d’horizon from one of her lovers or clients, a man who knew everything worth knowing on the Parisian scene. Charles de Morny was a Bonaparte by blood and a half-brother of the President-Emperor, Napoleon III. If he was the perfect instructor, then she was the ideal pupil, as she proved by her mastery of all he imparted.

Alexandre Dumas fils, who had known Marie Duplessis intimately, recreated her in his Roman, and then again further recreated her in the play he derived from his fiction. The success of these works made the younger Dumas rich. But René Weis has convincingly argued that the ultimate transformation of Marie Duplessis is that of Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave, in the famous opera, La traviata, “The Woman Led Astray.”

 La traviata had at one time been titled Amore e morte (Love and Death)—and that original title had a certain merit. Weis reminds us that Verdi had known something of the original Marie Duplessis and that, having spent much time in Paris in her day, he had been well aware of Dumas fils’ play and even of its inspiring source. And the play did have some music to reinforce its energy and emotion.

Indeed, there were several symmetries  between Verdi’s La traviata and its source material. The most powerful of these was his memory of Margherita, his first wife, who had died young at age 26, and whose two children had died years before. His later liaison with Giuseppina Strepponi was another analogy and a less miserable one, and it was another reason why Verdi started writing the music of and for La traviata even before there was a libretto. We might say that the music welled up in him, and he had to catch it when he could. This was not to him just another piece of work, but something that was related to his own life and deepest self. He would later say that Rigoletto and La traviata were the favorite operas of his own composition, and indeed, these works have something in common with each other that transcends the association of the times of composition. The daughter who sacrifices her life in the earlier opera, is related to the mistreated woman led astray in the other. These two females receive or achieve their proper recognition in the libretti and above all in the music that presents them. And Weis does not neglect the opportunity to boldly suggest that Franz Liszt, in two of his best-known works (the Rigoletto paraphrase of the Quartet and the Sonata in B minor), had the recently departed Maria Duplessis on his mind.

Now I cannot assert that Weis’s The Real Traviata is a book without flaw, but I do believe that its focus on the personalities and history behind the music is admirable and persuasive. As a counterexample, Charles Rosen takes the opposite approach in writing about the creation of Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor in his book, The Romantic Generation (1995). Rosen’s treatment of Liszt’s has nothing to do with personalities, but everything to do with penetrating textual and structural analysis. Weis went down a different path, immersing himself in the Paris of the 1840s, and taking us with him to explore its wealth of characters and situations. It’s as if Rosen never got off the piano bench and walked around, while Weis was all over the place, introducing us to a host of friends and acquaintances. Rosen’s analysis of Liszt’s Sonata is indispensable in itself, but Weis’s placement of it in social, historic, and even erotic context, is by no means to be dismissed.

Yet I did behold in Charles Rosen’s text, if not any reference to Marie Duplessis, rather a quite explicit identification of a quality that is not associated with any charismatic individual or name. Rosen finds in the Liszt Sonata not only Gothic and religious passages, but also erotic ones. He refers to “a somewhat erotic cast” and declares, “The combination of brimstone and incense is a heady perfume.” He also refers to the different characters which present the “religious mode with erotic overtones.” I was rather bemused to sense the presence of  Dumas fils’ The Lady of the Camellias, but without any specific reference. In their very different ways, Weis and Rosen interpreted Liszt’s Sonata similarly, even though only one of them was devoted to the legend of that Lady.

As we have seen, the country girl who became the vamp of the city was recognized in various ways and was even transmogrified in different personae and in newly created and creative selves. Even from among those various versions, the characters of Violetta—and the younger and the elder Germonts—are the most memorable of the presentation of that story of a Paris legend. And the powerful, even unforgettable music that animates Verdi’s masterpiece, still holds audiences enthralled today.

No less a writer and observer than Marcel Proust himself was moved to declare that Verdi’s opera had achieved what Dumas fils could not, in a triple distillation of a legend that was based on mythic truth. Weis shares Proust’s assertion that “‘it was Verdi and La traviata who gave a style to La Dame aux Camélias. Better still, they gave it a soul,’ and by so doing succeeded ‘in raising La Dame aux Camélias to the level of Great Art.’” Many decades later, we can hardly disagree, just as many decades later  an iconic burial site in Montmartre is still visited by those who know what they are looking for—and even some who bring camellia flowers.          

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