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  • The Real Traviata: The tragic true story that inspired La traviata

The Real Traviata: The tragic true story that inspired La traviata

The life of courtesan Marie Duplessis and her early death from consumption inspired several works of art, including Verdi's famous opera.

By René Weis (Professor of English, University College London)

15 January 2016 at 5.10pm | 9 Comments

In January 1847 a young woman lay dying of consumption at 11 Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris. Her name was Marie Duplessis. She had recently turned 23 and was the most fashionable courtesan in Paris, the uncontested queen of the horizontales who serviced the city’s rich bourgeoisie, upper classes, artists, writers and musicians. Her life and death would inspire Verdi’s most famous opera – La traviata.

By all accounts Duplessis was as refined as she was brilliant, precocious and generous. Franz Liszt was among her many lovers. He was touring Russia when news reached him that she had died. Hers, he declared, had been the sweetest nature, pure and serene, unsullied by the corruption of her shadowy world. Clearly there was something very special about Marie Duplessis.

Nor did the wider French press hold back with their tributes after her death on 3 February 1847. After all, in addition to such lovers as Liszt, Alexandre Dumas fils and — perhaps too — Dumas père, Duplessis’ wider circle of acquaintances encompassed some of her most illustrious contemporaries.

Within a year of Duplessis’ death, Dumas fils had written La Dame aux camélias. They had been lovers for 11 months. The novel was instantly recognized as a roman à clef and took Paris by storm, not least because of its candid, unapologetic portrayal of forbidden pleasures and vices. Dumas’ pretext for basing it so intimately on his own life was that at 24 he was too young to invent fiction.

On 2 February 1852, pointedly almost five years to the day since her death, Dumas’ dramatic adaptation of La Dame aux camélias received its premiere at the Vaudeville. It was almost certainly through this that Verdi and his companion, the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, first encountered the story of Marie Duplessis in the guise of Marguerite Gautier. Verdi appears to have decided there and then to compose La traviata.

An illuminating account of Duplessis’ early life growing up in Normandy was written some forty years after her death by a childhood friend, the journalist Romain Vienne. While on a posting in San Francisco he had been persuaded to see La Dame aux camélias. In response, Vienne wrote a memoir, La Vérité sur la dame aux camélias, in the hope of distancing Marie’s story from the fictions that had grown up around her.

Marie Duplessis was born Rose Alphonsine Plessis in the village of Nonant on 15 January 1824. The aristocratic-sounding ‘Du’ and her first name were her inventions. Vienne’s most affecting memory was of a time when they had met again in Nonant years after childhood. Marie revealed to him that she had returned to Normandy to recover from the birth of a ‘beautiful’ baby boy three months earlier. She could not keep him because his rich father had taken him away to be brought up in Burgundy in ways befitting his noble pedigree.

When Vienne pressed Duplessis about her own father, she started to cry; much to his surprise she defended his memory, even though he had once traded her for money to a degenerate old man in the nearby hamlet of Exmes. She who later displayed red and white camellias alternately to advertise her sexual availability had, as a child, been found wandering aimlessly in meadows near the village, distraught, bleeding and terror-stricken. Local outrage at the treatment of little Alphonsine saved her from being forced back into the arms of her abuser; it also turned her father into a pariah.

The short life of the lady of the camellias continues to haunt the imagination. Marie Duplessis has achieved lasting and universal fame as Violetta Valéry in the lyrics and music of Verdi’s opera. Proust claimed that La traviata transformed La Dame aux camélias into art. It also turned the tragic young woman from Normandy into a legend.

This is an edited extract from René Weis’s article ‘The Saintly Courtesan’, available in full in The Royal Opera’s programme book for La traviata, on sale during performances.

Weis’s books include The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis.

Il trovatore runs 1 December 2016-8 February 2017.
Tickets go on sale to Friends of Covent Garden on 21 September 2016. General booking opens on 18 October 2016.

This article has 9 comments

  1. Anna responded on 4 February 2016 at 7:51pm Reply

    My first cinema opera, enchanting, after the first scene.

  2. Marisa Bugeja responded on 19 February 2016 at 2:42pm Reply

    Very interesting article; enlightening.
    Could you tell us the name of the artist of the lovely painting of Alphonsine/Marie please?

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 19 February 2016 at 4:35pm

      Hi Marisa,

      I'm glad you found the article interesting. The image was sourced from The Lost Gallery https://www.flickr.com/photos/thelostgallery/ – unfortunately I don't have any further details. If anyone knows anything of the history of this painting please do get in touch.

      All best,
      Rachel

  3. Mark responded on 23 March 2016 at 4:50am Reply

    Very interesting story indeed, I have just happened to listen the program about Marie Duplessis and your article added some details to it.
    I have googled this image and it turned me back that it is a work of a Japanese Painter Kinuko Craft. Kinuko Y. Craft is one of the most widely respected and well known fantasy artists in the United States today. She considers herself a story teller. Her past commissions have included paintings for the book covers of many well known fantasy authors, opera posters, fairy tale books. So she could not see Marie alive and it is a work of fiction, sadly, but it is a beautiful painting, as I am sure Marie was.
    Here is the link:
    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/480548222719256719/
    Thanks again for this article.
    Mark.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 23 March 2016 at 10:10am

      Hi Mark,

      I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Many thanks for helping us out with the image attribution.

      All best,
      Rachel

    • Thank you so much for your comments on this website that have resulted in crediting me for my 1988 painting of Violetta Valery-The Lady of the Camelias. It was originally created for the Atlanta Opera, via a design firm who commissioned the work, however it was never published. Please also note that I am an American Artist who happens to be of Japanese ancestry. My entire 50+ year career has been in the USA

  4. Eñizabeth responded on 11 November 2016 at 6:08am Reply

    I enjoyed reading this article, now I have a more wider spectre of why Verdi was so inspired to write such beautiful music. Another perspective to look forward to next year's HD broadcast of the Met.

  5. tom brehony responded on 21 December 2016 at 9:44am Reply

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for bringing to light the traumatic experience of a child, & the subsequent transformation that made her into a legend! La Traviata will never be the same in my eyes nor sound the same again!

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