Uncovering the 'Real-Life' Inspiration to Verdi's La Traviata

Email a Friend

According to Operabase, Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata is the world's most frequently performed opera. Several new books and an upcoming film screening allow Operavores to dig deeper into the artistic roots and afterlife of this much-loved work.

In a note on her new Penguin translation of The Lady of Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils, Liesl Schillinger calls the story of Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval's romance "relatable." That is rubbish and perhaps the only blot on a graceful and enthralling rendering of the 1848 novella.

The text's real-life inspiration is well known: Marie Duplessis, Paris's most celebrated courtesan and the real-life lover of author Dumas, fils. Following her death at age 23 in 1847, Dumas dashed off the novella in less than a month, and it became a sensation. He later adapted it as a play, which Verdi may have seen during its 1852 run. ("Real-life" should be taken with a grain of salt: the text explicitly recalls Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut and other literary models.)

With all respect to Schillinger, anyone who can "relate" to The Lady of the Camellias is in dire need of counseling. The very elegance of her prose amplifies the horror of the novella, the story of a man's crazed drive to possess a woman economically, sexually, and even in death. When Armand visits Marguerite's grave, he longs "to part the depths to see what the earth had done to the beautiful creature who had been surrendered to it." The tale's narrator also yearns to take in the "melancholy spectacle," and Marguerite is duly dug up, robbed of dignity and forced to sate men's appetites even as a corpse.

Dumas's Marguerite is also canny and wise and informs Armand that she and her fellow courtesans "have selfish lovers who spend their fortunes not on us, but on their own vanity." The even more remarkable historical woman behind Marguerite (and thus Violetta) is the subject of Julie Kavanagh's The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis (Knopf). Born a peasant in Normandy, Alphonsine Plessis was beaten, sold, and probably raped by her father, a drunken idler. He sent her to Paris (or abandoned her there), where she worked as a laundress and shop girl but soon realized that trading on her beauty could bring her a better life. By age 16 she was launched on her career as a courtesan.

Alphonsine added "du" to her last name to give it a noble fragrance and adopted the Blessed Virgin's given name out of a sense of irony. One admirer arranged for her to have lessons in French, music and drawing, and the semi-illiterate waif reinvented herself, winning fame for her grace and wit. Above all, she lived life to the hilt and on her own terms. Kavanagh writes:

In refusing to submit to the punitive moral code of her day and accept 'a monastic existence, with no parties, no amusements, no lovers,' she entered a world denied to any respectable woman. ...[She also] became part of a distinguished group of intelligentsia, sharing a table at the Café de Paris with a secret society of twelve members of the city's elite -- men whose appetite for stimulating conversation, gastronomy, fine wines, and infernal pleasures exactly matched her own.

The Girl Who Loved Camellias paints a vivid picture of 19th-century Paris and the upheavals in politics, gender roles, and class mobility that marked it. Kavanagh's take on Duplessis's life is stronger and more substantive than her appraisal of her legend: she implies for example that Maria Callas was inspired to slim down to portray Violetta, though Medea was the role that prompted her weight loss. All the same, Kavanagh's prose sparkles, and The Girl Who Loved Camellias is a bracingly clear-eyed look at a woman known to many readers only through the prism of Dumas's erotic mania.

Emilio Sala's forthcoming book The Sounds of Paris in Verdi's 'La Traviata' (CUP) is a probing study of the urban soundscape from which La Traviata emerged. Though the myth of Verdi the unwashed innocent, which Verdi himself did much to perpetuate, endures to this day, his peers heard his music as aggressively modern. Sala examines the influence of Parisian boulevard theater and mélodrame on Verdi's works and teases out the thematic implications of the waltz (a "close-couple" dance heard as "erotic" and "obscene"), the camellia (a costly flower associated with both innocence and corruption), and the Manon-Marguerite-Mimì constellation in place even before La Traviata came to be.

Finally, Camille: A 35-millimeter archival print of the 1936 classic starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor (above, right) will be shown on Monday, July 1 at Film Forum in Manhattan and introduced by Kavanagh. In The Girl Who Loved Camellias, she writes that "Garbo may have come closest to embodying the real Marie, bringing an ironical intelligence to the role, ridding it of sentiment, and changing the notion of the heroine as a victim of men."

The Film Forum screening will remind us of the enduring fascination of a woman who died at 23 yet lives on in cinema, books, and Verdi's beloved and evergreen masterpiece.