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Pretty Woman

Biographer JULIE KAVANAGH tells the story of Marie Duplessis, the girl who inspired Verdi's Violetta Valéry.

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Alfons Mucha's theatrical poster for the stage adaptation of La Dame aux Camélias, which starred Sarah Bernhardt as Marguerite Gautier
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Nureyev and Fonteyn in Frederick Ashton's ballet Marguerite and Armand
© Royal Academy of Dance/ArenaPAL 2014
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Marie Duplessis

Long before I ever thought of writing about her, I discovered the real traviata, Marie Duplessis, not through opera but through ballet. Frederick Ashton's Marguerite and Armand had used a distilled version of La Dame aux Camélias, the story by Alexandre Dumas fils, as a star vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and it was while working on biographies first of Ashton, then of Nureyev, that I found myself falling in love with Marie. Yet only when I decided to make her my next subject did I start looking for aspects of her in Violetta. The more I found out, though, the more closely it seemed to me that Marie resembled the heroines of La Bohème and Manon Lescaut; in fact, I even stumbled on a scrap of evidence suggesting that Marie could have been the original Mimì.

Marie Duplessis was an impoverished grisette, just another pretty girl of easy virtue living among the students of the Latin Quarter, when she turned up on the doorstep of a young journalist she knew called Henry. She hadn't eaten for two days, she told him, but what she longed for were cherries. "It's mid-June now, and I haven't yet tasted any." The anecdote was written by "An Unknown" and published as an obituary in the journal Paris Élégant. At that time, Henri Murger, whose autobiographical Scènes de la Vie de Bohème is the source of Puccini's opera, spelled his Christian name the English way, with a y, and, like his hero Rodolphe, subsidized his writing by editing a fashion magazine. But I found no evidence to prove that Marie had ever been Murger's mistress, and apart from the fact that both she and Mimì die young from consumption, the likeness ended there. Working her way up almost overnight from grisette to grande horizontale, Marie acquired the luxurious lifestyle that Mimì could only dream of — the point at which La Traviata begins. 

The first DVD recording of Verdi's opera that I watched was Willy Decker's 2005 Salzburg production. Its stylized contemporary setting felt right, as it was the modernity of Dumas's play, transporting audiences directly into the demimonde of the day, that had so impressed Verdi. I found Anna Netrebko's Violetta of Act I — a tousled, writhing scarlet woman — electrifying, but she bore no resemblance to the original courtesan, or at least not to her public image. For, far from flaunting her sexuality, Marie was admired for her discretion, chastely covering her shoulders with a shawl — "a little figurine made of Dresden china," in the words of Dumas. 

In total contrast, Renée Fleming's Violetta (in the 2006 Los Angeles production)was almost dowager-like in Act I. Her crinoline, stiff wig and cushiony décolletage made her a travesty of Marie, who was a quarter of a century younger, and whose slender allure was rooted in a combination of sophistication and girlish simplicity. On the other hand, Fleming brought a dignity to the role that was true to life. A peasant girl from Normandy, abandoned by her mother and sexually groomed by her brutish father, Marie had triumphed over her background and reinvented herself as a woman of aristocratic elegance and culture. If Verdi's heroine begins the opera as a vapid party girl fluttering from one pleasure to another, Marie, just by the reality of what she had overcome, was an infinitely more resourceful and sympathetic character. 

The early encounter between Violetta and Alfredo, when he urges her to take better care of her health and she offers him only friendship, replicates an actual exchange between Marie and Dumas. It was the prelude to their brief affair, and when he came to write La Dame aux Camélias, the novelist merged his own story with that of a young count, Edouard Perregaux, who was obsessed with Marie. The couple's sojourn in Bougival, a village on the Seine, found its way into the novel, play and opera, although Verdi chose to fast-forward the narrative to the moment when Violetta has been forced to sell everything in order to prolong her idyll with Alfredo. It's at this point that Marie ceases to be a prototype for Violetta and becomes a reincarnation of Manon Lescaut. She herself recognized their kinship; Abbé Prévost's novel absorbed her to the point of obsession, and she marked the pages of her copy with notes and observations. Like the materialistic, practical Manon, "as passionate for pleasure as her lover was for her," Marie knew that romance could never withstand financial deprivation. She was, as her confidant and first biographer put it, "a thousand times more likely to leave her lover than renounce her luxurious habits."

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Dumas fils

Her summer in the country with Ned Perregaux, when their affair was at its most intense, is the high point of the play, as it is of most other reinterpretations, such as Garbo's film Camille and Ashton's ballet, in which Marguerite's passion for Armand is enacted in duets of rhapsodic abandon. Dumas prettified the interlude in the novel, showing Marguerite, in her white dress and straw hat, chasing after a butterfly like a child of ten, and he censored what he knew of the real character's insatiable libido. Marie, he said, was "always ready for love," and in a poem published in his first book, Sins of Youth, he described her "frantic body ... squirming and burning beneath [his] kisses." It's as if Netrebko and her Alfredo, Rolando Villazón, were responding to this with their raunchy antics on the sofa before Act ll begins. As an interpolation, it's entertaining but also highly provocative, as it takes dramatic license to an illicit extreme. Verdi wasn't interested in an erotic bond between the lovers, which he showed by skipping the Bougival period entirely. It was Violetta's soul he wanted to expose, not her sexuality. He saw how music could intensify her spiritual journey, expressing psychological nuances untapped by the play, and he made Violetta's confrontation with Germont the emotional fulcrum of La Traviata.

It's possible that the scene with the father, invented by Dumas to heighten the romantic pathos of the story, is based on a crumb of fact. Marie did receive a visitor at the country house who came there to insist that she give up her lover. It was not Ned's father, who had recently died, but his financial advisor and guardian, who used threats as his method of persuasion, outlining his ward's prospects in grim terms. Germont is much like him at the beginning of the encounter — disrespectful and ruthlessly self-righteous. But what Verdi went on to create is a wrenching drama within the drama, with subtle power shifts between the pair as they gradually develop sensitivity to each other's situation. From his plodding, heartless recital of what lies in store for Violetta, Germont finds an inner solicitude that grows into fatherly affection as his voice, now melodious, melts into hers. 

This episode alone shows how La Dame aux Camélias, in Verdi's hands, evolved into a masterpiece, and yet, there was a moment when I found myself questioning its plausibility. I'd just read the book Violetta and Her Sisters, a collection of "responses to the myth," edited by the late Nicholas John, in which several women dismiss Violetta's sacrifice as "ridiculous." One contributor can't understand why she doesn't just ignore the priggish Germont; another is infuriated by the fact that "male composers and writers create women who are such gleaming ideals." John himself interviewed the soprano Helen Field, who admitted being troubled by the heroine's capitulation: "She wouldn't actually have done that — at least I wouldn't have done that! You find yourself asking who would." But surely the feminist response overlooks the fact that Violetta surrenders her happiness for a woman. Her resolve is weakened not at the prospect of saving Alfredo's honor but at her discovery of his sister, whose future would be destroyed by the shame of their liaison. Violetta, as she tells Germont, is making the sacrifice for her. Nor is it entirely altruistic. The chance to rescue an innocent girl is almost like beginning her life afresh — a way of redeeming herself. And what makes it all the more convincing to me is the example of the real Marie's compassion toward needy young women. When a friend told her he was organizing a collection to help a girls' orphanage, she instinctively reached for her purse; she took a disgraced daughter under her wing as a protégée, and at her funeral, among the small gathering of mourners, were several fallen women "weeping as they said goodbye to their discreet benefactress." 

Knowing about Marie's acts of charity makes it easier for me to accept another instance of Violetta's saintliness — her dying wish to donate half her money to the poor. As the opera reaches its conclusion, Verdi seems to be pushing credibility to its limit, manipulating our emotions by getting us to condone the psychologically improbable. When Marie was close to death she gave a medallion — Edouard Vienot's well-known portrait showing her long black ringlets and signature corsage of a white camellia — to her consultant Dr. Davaine (La Traviata's Dottore Grenvil). This was to express her gratitude to the kindly Davaine, who refused to accept more than a token fee for his eighty-four visits. Marie's gracious, practical gesture is believable in a way that Violetta's parallel one is not. Wanting to show the extremity of human love, Verdi makes Violetta give Alfredo her miniature to pass on to his future wife — "some gentle maiden in the springtime of her life." I find this moment impossibly self-abnegating and sentimental and yet marvel at the way the cloying words become transfigured as they're sung. The beauty and serenity of the music, by appealing directly to the senses, not only persuades us of Violetta's moral superiority, it provides glowing consolation for her unjust and comfortless end. spacer 

JULIE KAVANAGH is the author of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton, Nureyev and The Girl Who Loved Camellias. She is a writer and contributing editor for Intelligent Life, The Economist's sister title, and divides her time between London, Wales and Salento.

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