La Traviata, a melodrama in three acts, was set to a libretto by Verdi’s longtime collaborator Francesco Maria Piave and is based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ play, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias). The play itself was adapted from Dumas’ novel of the same title, which was published in the summer of 1848 by A. Cadot of Paris, when Verdi was in the city. The play was initially scheduled to open at the Théâtre Historique, where Dumas père worked as director, but the theatre experienced financial problems and eventually closed for good. In 1851, the second edition of Dumas’ novel was published, with an introduction by Jules Janin which revealed the true identity of the mysterious Lady of the Camellias. In the meantime, as the sensational story grew in popularity, the play was vetoed by the censors. Eventually, after the coup d’état, the production was given permission and the play premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris on February 2, 1852. It was an instant success, enjoying 100 consecutive performances. In May of 1852, it was performed in French at the Teatro Re in Milan, and the Italian version of the play was published in Milan shortly after. In 1853, while La Traviata was in rehearsals at La Fenice in Venice, Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias was playing at the Teatro Apollo in the same city. When La Traviata finally opened, the audience was already pretty familiar with the story, a fact widely noted by the local newspapers:
Because of the great fuss made by the Paris newspapers about it, and the countless performances it enjoyed at the Apollo, we believe that our readers will not only be familiar with the subject of the opera, but will know the play word by word. The subject is none other than La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas fils, adapted a little clumsily—as is customary with operatic plots—and transported back to the time of the great Louis in order to create an excuse for a little more grandeur and lustre in the stage decorations. (quoted in Sala 60–61)
Out of all of Dumas’ stories, the tale of the “Lady of the Camellias,” who eventually came to be known as Camille, turned out to be his most popular and most enduring, with 16 versions of the story staged on Broadway alone, and nearly 30 different film adaptations, including the two most well-known versions: the 1936 Camille, directed by George Cukor and starring Greta Garbo as the title character, and the 2001 Moulin Rouge!, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman. Even Erich Segal’s 1970s novel, Love Story (and the iconic movie based on the novel) is said to be modeled on Dumas’ story, with the class difference between the two lovers and the sickness and death of the female protagonist framing the melodramatic plot.
Dumas’ heroine, Marguerite Gautier, was actually based on the real-life Marie Duplessis (1824–47), his lover and a popular French courtesan and salon hostess. A known mistress to a number of prominent men of her era, Marie died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 23, leaving behind one of the most enticing myths of her epoch. The story goes that although she was born a peasant, Duplessis managed to climb the ladder of Parisian society from laundry girl to one of Paris’ most celebrated courtesans thanks to her wits and striking, ethereal beauty. She was tall and pale with dark hair and “lips redder than cherries”- Dumas wrote, she looked “like a little figurine made of Dresden china” (quoted in Kavanagh). She was reportedly smart, pragmatic, and widely admired, and her salons were attended by the likes of Franz Liszt, Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, and Théophile Gautier. While conducting an affair with young Dumas, Marie was supported by an octogenarian, Count Stackelberg, and pretended to be his daughter. Dumas is said to have been forced to sneak around, hiding from Stackelberg, as he himself was too young to be able to support Marie and her extravagant household. It is unclear whether Dumas based the fictional character of Marie’s lover, Armand Duval, on himself or on Count Edouard de Perregaux, who was so in love with her that, in 1846, he married her against the wishes of his family. At the end, as she was dying of tuberculosis, Marie – abandoned by her lovers and cared for only by her faithful maid Clothilde – died while a horde of creditors were knocking on her door. When Marie died, her possessions were auctioned off to pay her debts, an event which the journalists of the times treated at length, one of them writing sensationally: “All of Paris was crowding to the sale of a lady of the demi-monde, Marie Duplessis, who had led the most brilliant and abandoned of lives, and left behind her the most exquisite furniture, and the most voluptuous and sumptuous bijouterie” (Sutherland 1893: 131). On March 6, 1847, L’Illustration featured an elaborate description of the sold objects “that awoke curiosity, if not the greed, of the holiest and chastest of women” (Sala 63).
The legend goes that Marie loved camellias. In 1886, Henry Sutherland Edwards wrote: “Little did the Jesuit Camelli, when he brought from Japan the flower which was to bear a name derived from his own; little did he think of what class of women this flower—Camellia Parisiana—would one day become the recognized symbol. It is without fragrance; for which reason, in its outward and inward significance, it was habitually worn by the fair one without reputation to whom the name of La Dame aux Camélias was so appropriately given” (212). Although she foremost loved white camellias, Marie is said to have worn a red one during her time of the month to indicate to her lovers that she was unavailable. Thanks to all the stories circulating about Marie and her flowers, the camellia gained a special mystique. Elegant, simple, and enigmatic, in the early 20th century, the camellia was adopted by Coco Chanel as a symbol of the fashion house’s haute couture. Since then, the flower has become a staple of wardrobes around the world.
Dumas’ novel was published shortly after Marie’s death, and the play premiered four years later, on the wave of the increasingly titillating story. Verdi and Piave adapted Dumas’ play in record time while Verdi was still working on Il Trovatore. Although he would typically take four months to compose an opera, Verdi took just four weeks to compose La Traviata. The original working title for the opera was Amore e Morte (Love and Death), but it was changed at the request of censors. Verdi was very much taken with the tale, considering it “a subject of the times,” as he wrote to his friend Cesare De Sanctis (Fisher 2007: 17). La Traviata premiered in Venice, at Teatro La Fenice, on March 6, 1853, with a cast that included Fanny Salvini Donatelli (Violetta), Ludovico Graziani (Alfredo), and Felise Varesi (Giorgio Germont). The first staging received mixed reviews, prompting Verdi to write to his friend Emanuelle Muzio, "La Traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers? Time will tell." Time did tell. The second staging, on May 6 of the following year, with a different cast and revised score, was an instant success.
First image: Marie Duplessis, painted by Édouard Viénot. Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection. Second image: Watercolor of Marie Duplessis at the theatre, by Camille Roqueplan. Third image: Poster by Alfons Mucha (1896) for the production of La Dame aux Camélias with Sarah Bernhardt.
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Dumas, Alexandre. Camille: or, The Fate of a Coquette. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers, 1880. Print.
Edwards, Henry Sutherland. Famous First Representations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1886. Print.
Fisher, Burton D. Verdi's la Traviata: Opera Classics Library Series. Opera Journeys Publishing, 2007. Print and on-line.
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Old and New Paris: Its History, Its People, and Its Places, Volumes 1-2. London: Cassel and Company Limited, 1893. Print.
Parker, Roger. The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
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Roberts, Nickie. Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society. London: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
Sala, Emilio. The Sounds of Paris in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Trans. Delia Casadei. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.