In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

La Traviata - Love for Sale

Sep 26, 2014 5:08:00 PM
By BLO Staff

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

In the first
volume of his sprawling 19th-century novel, In Search of
Lost Time,
Marcel Proust chronicles
the tale of Charles Swann, an upper-class member of French society, and his
obsessive love for Odette de Crécy, a popular and attractive Parisian
courtesan. Although Swann is able to buy Odette’s time and body, he is unable to
buy her thoughts and feelings, and he is reduced “to utter confusion” when
suddenly forced “to perceive that Odette had an existence which was not wholly
subordinated to his own.” “When Odette had just done something
which she did not wish to disclose, she would take pains to conceal it in a
secret place in her heart,” which Swann, no matter how much money he spent, could
not access. Since Odette’s material well-being—and survival—wholly depended on
being wanted and desired by men who supported her, Swann was never able to tell
whether “her love for him was based on a foundation more lasting than . . . mere
commercial interest.” Unable to possess all of her, Swann grows increasingly
obsessed and eventually decides to marry her, convinced that he will finally be
able to reach her, but to his surprise, even as his wife – legally bound to
obey him – Odette remains unreachable, leaving Swann in “the painful and
continuous anxiety which dwelt in his mind.”

“A ‘kept’
woman—an iridescent mixture of unknown and demoniacal qualities,” Odette is a quintessential
courtesan of her era, quixotically enigmatic, inscrutable, and self-possessed. Although
it captures a particular lifestyle of upper-class French society at the turn of
the century, Proust’s novel is also perhaps one of the better psychological and
philosophical treatises of the complex and enduring question of love, sex, and
money. What can and cannot be bought, and for what price? From Dumas’ 1848 The
Lady of the Camellias,
on which
Verdi’s La Traviata
is based, to contemporary movies like 1990’s Pretty Woman, with Julia Roberts, and 2001’s Moulin
with Nicole Kidman, male artists
have been fascinated by the idea of the “kept” woman, and Verdi’s heroine is
just one of the many “kept” women who recur in art, literature, and opera. La Traviata, the title of which literally translates as “The
Fallen Woman,” tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a beautiful courtesan of
Paris, and Alfredo Germont, a young and idealistic man from a respectable
provincial family. In the story, and many others that followed, Violetta is the
prototypical ‘whore with the heart of gold’ who rejects her lover as the
ultimate proof of her devotion, aware that association with her will most
likely ruin his future societal prospects. Thus redeemed by her selfless
sacrifice, Violetta is finally accepted by Alfredo’s family, which nonetheless
doesn’t save her, as she ends up dying from tuberculosis to her lover’s despair.
Roland Barthes
noted that the myth of the Lady of the Camellias is “probably the most popular
feminine myth of the bourgeois era” (quoted in Salo: 61). The purified and
idealized image of Violetta (and of all other Fallen Women of the era modeled
on her story) captures the socioeconomic incongruities of the 19th century’s
changing gender relations, particularly the transition from courtesan to trophy
wife as the ultimate symbol of male economic status. The 19th
century was dominated by the idea of the upper-class “lady” of leisure. Labor
was considered vulgar and “unclean;” only women of the lower classes worked,
and their options were significantly limited to menial household jobs or agrarian
fieldwork. To afford a leisurely, ladylike lifestyle, a woman needed a man who
could support her. Conversely, to be considered successful, a man needed a ladylike
woman whom he would support. At first, the position of “lady” was occupied by
high-class courtesans, but with the emergence of the bourgeois class, the
status of woman of leisure was taken up by the trophy wife. 

In 1899, in The
Theory of the Leisure Class,
Veblen argued that while upper-class men were
required to devote themselves solely to the pursuit of wealth, their courtesans
and, later, wives became “decorative objects,” fully devoted to the pursuit of
a ladylike ideal, which testified to their husbands’ wealth and power: “In
order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it was not sufficient merely to possess
wealth and power. The wealth and power must be put in evidence, for esteem is
awarded only in evidence” (36). The courtesan, and later, the trophy wife,
highly decorated in expensive dresses and jewelry, and requiring a cohort of
servants to attend to her and her elaborate wardrobe, provided evidence of a
man’s wealth: “Women are highly valued, both as an evidence of wealth and as a
means of accumulating wealth” (Veblen 53). It became a woman’s main objective
to conform to the role of “trophy,” displayed for the same purpose that hunting
trophies were displayed. The display of wealth was simply part of the new
economic reality. The rise of capitalism required a well-defined system of
economic indicators that would differentiate the newly-emerging bourgeois class
from the rest of the society, but that would also provide a system of
indicators by which males could recognize among themselves the most successful
of the group.  Thus, the display of courtesans, wives, and hunting trophies
allowed for recognition of the leaders whom others could profit from, flatter,
and emulate. An expensive courtesan, like other commodities, symbolized a
male’s status quo: he could afford to pay for her leisure. The more expensive
her lifestyle, the better it reflected on the man who supported it, and the
better it showcased his social and economic status.

Contrary to the mythology, the real-life Violetta, Marie
Duplessis (1824–47), on whom Dumas’ heroine was based, was a pragmatic and keen
businesswoman. In a letter to one of her prospective lovers, she wrote quite candidly:
“Monsieur le baron, I realize that
mine is a sordid profession, but I must let you know that my favors cost a
great deal of money. My protector must be extremely rich to cover my household
expenses and satisfy my caprices.” With few viable options for a dignified life,
it’s no wonder that 19th-century women remained enigmas in the eyes
of men of their era. Out of
necessity, from navigating and surviving in such a world, only a woman could
know the “secret place in her heart.” Like Proust’s Odette, Verdi’s Violetta’s
character and motivations are scrutinized thoughtfully, revealing the
paradoxical relationship between love and money. After all, can love
be bought, or can it only
be given freely by a free human being, and what does it really mean for a woman
to love freely in an unfree society?

The Ruined Maid
by Thomas Hardy, written in 1866 

“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!

 Who could have supposed I should meet
you in Town?
 And whence such fair garments, such
prosperi-ty?” —
 “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?”
said she.

 — “You left us in tatters, without shoes
or socks,
 Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding
up docks;
 And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright
feathers three!” —
 “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re
ruined,” said she.

 — “At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
 And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
 Your talking quite fits ’ee for high compa-ny!” —
 “Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

 — “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
 But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
 And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
 “We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

 — “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
 And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
 To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
 “True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

 — “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
 And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
 “My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
 Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

Read more:
Cross, Milton. Complete Stories of the Great Operas. 1st ed. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1947. Print.
Dumas, Alexandre. Camille: or, The Fate of a Coquette. Philadelphia: T. B.
Peterson & Brothers, 1880. Print.
Edwards, H. Sutherland. Famous First Representations. London: Chapman and Hall,
1886. Print.
Kavanagh, Julie. The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis.
1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.
Martin, George Whitney. Verdi: His Music, Life and Times. New York: Dodd, Mead,
1963. Print.
Parker, Roger. The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas. Oxford; New
York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time ( À
la recherche du temps perdu,
published in seven volumes, 1913–27). Volume
1: Swann’s Way ( Du côté de chez Swann, sometimes translated
as The Way by Swann’s). Paris, 1913.
on the Morality of Dramatic Compositions, with Particular Reference to “La
Traviata,” etc.
London: J. Chapman, 1856. Print.
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.
Veblen, T. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An
Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions.
New York; London:
Macmillan, 1899. Print.
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