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Understanding the History and Deeper Meaning in Verdi’s La Traviata

Updated on October 26, 2013

La Traviata is a stunning love story. It is a true story that is only thinly veiled by operatic melodrama. In addition to being one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous operas, La Traviata is the most famous work based on the life of a woman who was misunderstood and who died too young. Her name was Marie Duplessis.

Painting of Marie Duplessis by Camille Roqueplan
Painting of Marie Duplessis by Camille Roqueplan | Source

This woman has appeared in the entertainment world under many different names: Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camelias or Camille, Violetta Valery in La Traviata, and, more recently, Satine in Moulin Rouge! All these women are simply different incarnations of a 23 year old French courtesan from the early 19th century. Technically, Marie Duplessis can be considered yet another pseudonym created for dramatic flair: her real name was Alphonsine Plessis. She was born on January 15, 1824 in a backwaters town in Normandy, France. She was stunningly beautiful and, by the age of 12, had begun working as a prostitute. At 15, she moved to Paris where she began climbing in society by becoming a courtesan.

Just to clarify, courtesans differed from prostitutes in that the former would not walk the streets and be paid a pittance in return for their services. Instead, courtesans were considered a great prize. Aristocratic men would go to great lengths to become the patrons of the most desirable courtesans in the land. These women would be set up in the lap of luxury by their clients for however long the relationship would last. Alphonsine Plessis changed her name to Marie Duplessis in an attempt to erase her peasant, street-walking past. In this guise, she became one of the most famous women in Paris. She was the mistress of Franz Liszt and, even more famously, of Alexandre Dumas, fils.

However, Marie Duplessis was cursed with tuberculosis. After her more famous affairs had ended, she married – most likely to obtain a sense of security. She died on February 3, 1847 at just 23 years of age.

Tomb of Marie Duplessis in Montmartre Cemetary. The inscription on the stone says Alphonsine Plessis
Tomb of Marie Duplessis in Montmartre Cemetary. The inscription on the stone says Alphonsine Plessis | Source

Before the Opera – Creating The Lady of the Camellias

Alexandre Dumas, fils was the illegitimate son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Dumas had been recognized by his father and had been given a proper education. However, he was not at all wealthy when he met Marie Duplessis in 1844. Their relationship lasted for a little under a year before Dumas broke it off by saying he wasn’t rich enough to keep her in the luxury she was used to.

Poster for an 1896 production of La Dame aux Camelias
Poster for an 1896 production of La Dame aux Camelias | Source

According to romantic legend, Dumas was completely devastated when he found out about the death of Marie Duplessis. He had probably expected her to live at least a little while longer. And so, he poured all his sorrow out in his writing: in 1848, Alexandre Dumas, fils published a novel titled La Dame aux Camelias or The Lady of the Camellias. He changed the name of Marie Duplessis to Marguerite Gautier, and very minimally obscured his own character by calling the male romantic lead Armand Duval.

Dumas very much fleshed out the story. Most particularly, he made the plot climax with Marguerite being forced to break off the affair for the sake of the Duval family’s reputation. But like Marie, Marguerite is dying of tuberculosis. The book was quite successful and in 1852 Dumas adapted his novel for the stage. This is a very clean adaptation, by the way, and is almost indistinguishable from the original book. However, Dumas himself admitted that he created the play solely because he was desperate for money again. Nevertheless, this was what turned Marie Duplessis into one of the most beloved heroines of all time.

The play was extremely popular and the title role became a vehicle for actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and Ethel Barrymore. During modern times, The Lady of the Camellias or simply Camille was adapted several times for the silver screen. The most famous is the 1936 film Camille starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

From La Dame aux Camelias

What does it matter? If I am to live a shorter time than most people, I must live more quickly, that is all. But be sure of this, however eternal your love may be and however short a time I have to live, I shall yet live longer than your love.

Giuseppe Verdi saw the play La Dame aux Camelias during a trip to Paris in 1852. He thought it was perfect operatic material. The adaptation he created with his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, makes very few changes, with the exception of changing Marguerite’s name to Violetta, Armand Duval’s to Alfredo Germont, and the title of the work to La Traviata (The Fallen Woman).

Supposedly, during Marie Duplessis’ life, she was known as “The Lady of the Camellias”. White camellias were her favorite flower. According at least to what Dumas wrote in his novel, once a month she would apparently trade her white camellias for red, a signal that she should not be approached by any of her prospective clients.

This element is included, although in a more censored form, in La Traviata: During Act I, Violetta delays starting an affair with Alfredo by giving him a flower and telling him to come back when it dies – meaning the next day.

In both the fictional the true accounts of Marie Duplessis’ life, the camellia is a very important symbol. These flowers are very rare and delicate. Even more so, they often bloom only for one day – quite prophetic given the fact Duplessis died at 23.

Sketch for one of Violetta's costumes for the La Traviata premiere
Sketch for one of Violetta's costumes for the La Traviata premiere | Source

La Traviata – The Fiasco and the Triumph

La Traviata premiered on March 6, 1853, and was a complete failure – something hard to believe, considering this is now one of the most frequently performed operas of all time. Verdi wrote in a letter to his student, Emanuele Muzio: “Traviata” last night – a fiasco. Was it my fault or the singers’?...Time will tell.

Critics claimed the subject – courtesans, premarital affairs, etc – was too raunchy for public viewing. The singers most certainly did not help matters either: Lodovico Graziani, the tenor playing Alfredo, was hoarse and the baritone playing his father reportedly did not take the work seriously. Although the audience cheered the first act, they began booing and walking out as the opera progressed.

After the disastrous premiere, Verdi basically let the opera sit for more than a year. In May of 1854, La Traviata created a sensation when it was performed at a different theater with an entirely different cast. However, it is unlikely the original cast was the only problem with the opera’s premiere.

Portrait of Fanny Salvini-Donatelli
Portrait of Fanny Salvini-Donatelli | Source

La Traviata as a Bridge between Bel Canto and Verismo

One of the favorite stories everyone likes to tell about La Traviata is how the original Violetta, soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, was so fat the audience could do nothing but laugh at the idea of her dying of tuberculosis. However, portraits show that she was a very lovely woman, albeit slightly overweight. Furthermore, Salvini-Donatelli was highly respected for her singing ability. In fact, the same critics who panned the first performances of La Traviata did make a point of stating that Salvini-Donatelli’s singing was divine, particularly during the first act aria Sempre Libera.

Part of why Giuseppe Verdi was so stunned by the failure of this opera is that only two month earlier, the Italian audiences had received the first performance of Il Trovatore with open arms. Perhaps the delay in the public’s acceptance of La Traviata was due to the technical aspects of the music, rather than the nature of the first performance.

Giuseppe Verdi’s early operas very much follow the pattern of the Bel Canto movement. In modern times, people often laughingly describe his work as “Bel Canto on steroids”. His pre-La Traviata operas – Ernani, Macbeth, Nabucco, and indeed, Il Trovatore – all require the sopranos to sing intense passages of coloratura and call for lots of high notes from the tenors. But these operas must be sung by large dramatic voices – an idea that had been introduced into the Bel Canto style by operas such as Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Even more so, Richard Wagner’s revolutionary style of music was starting to make an impact. Music was changing, and in La Traviata Verdi had unwittingly created a bridge between the dying Bel Canto style and the soon to be born Verismo.

Verismo was the Realism movement of opera. Singing was still the primary focus. However, all unnecessary vocal displays were cut out and the stories started becoming more realistic and shocking. Instead of everything ending happily or the story culminating with the heroine inexplicably going insane, people in Verismo operas died because of political corruption, betrayal, and human disease. During the mid to late 19th century, opera, like literature and painting, was starting to grow up.

At La Traviata’s premiere, the audience did not have any problem with the story or the music until the start of the second act. Act I of this opera is very much in the old Bel Canto style. In addition to including the catchy and world renowned drinking song Libiamo, this act concludes with Violetta singing almost 15 solid minutes of complicated cadenzas, trills, and flourishes. The rest of the opera, however, contains basically no coloratura – with the exception of an often omitted cabaletta for Alfredo at the beginning of Act II – and concentrates on a quite believable story about heartbreak and death.

Il Trovatore, on the other hand, is made up entirely of complicated vocal pyrotechnics for all voices. Although this opera is very much loved because of its fantastic music, the story is often criticized for being dull and unbelievable. But this, not La Traviata, was more along the lines of what Verdi’s audience was used to. La Traviata was ahead of its time – but thankfully not too far ahead: Giuseppe Verdi was indeed able to see the opera’s success during his life.

© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2

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