SFOpera - Flower Girls

Flower Girls

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“Paris is corrupt to the core,” Charles Dickens huffed when he visited the French capital in February 1847. “For a number of days every question—political, artistic, and commercial—had been neglected by the newspapers. Everything is wiped out by an event of the highest importance, the romantic death of one of those glories of the demi-monde, the celebrated Marie Duplessis. You would have thought it was a question of the death of a hero or a Joan of Arc.” Dickens’ familiar brand of English puritan morality momentarily blinded the writer in him to what might be worthy of serious literature in the preposterously premature death of an unusually magnetic society woman, no doubt because he could dismiss Duplessis as a mere prostitute. That she had been among the elite of her world cut no moral ice for him.

One of her recent French lovers, however, had no such scruples. Alexander Dumas fils was an aspiring young writer laboring in the shadow of the vastly famous writer-father whose name he shared, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas père, moreover, may himself have been one of Marie Duplessis’ passing lovers. For some 11 months in 1844-45, Duplessis had favored the younger Dumas, who was neither rich nor famous, over (sometimes as well as) the crowd of wealthy men-about-town for whom she was by common consent one of the most desirable prizes a top Parisian society-male could aim at. Four months after she died, the 23-year-old Dumas—the same age as Marie—began his romanticized account of their affair. The book took him four weeks to write and was his first literary success. It was published in 1848 as La Dame aux Camélias, the sobriquet by which staff at the Paris Opéra had supposedly referred to Marie, who had her own box at the opera house and habitually arrived carrying a great bunch of the flowers that eventually gave her her best-known literary name.

The book’s success was such that Dumas was quickly persuaded to produce a stage version, but three years had to pass before it could be shown publicly. Parisian, and indeed all European society was changing. Dickens had used (and perhaps coined) the right phrase for the curious phenomenon of the mid-19th-century Parisian courtesans: theirs was indeed a demi-monde, a half-world filled with life and glamor, but private, a world not to be mentioned in public, least of all in the popular theaters to which respectable families took their well-brought up daughters. The luxury of the high-level courtesans’ world, where young women like Marie Duplessis held court in grand town mansions, began to crumble as the revolutions of 1848 convulsed Europe. The hidden half-world had been short-lived, no more than a quarter of a century at its height. The women who, like Marie, rose to its level had invariably begun life in poverty, and were often barely if at all educated. Those whose beauty was allied with wit, however, could with a strong mixture of luck and talent lift themselves from the crowd of grisettes and lorettes that were the virtually inevitable destiny of young women who were unable to follow the acceptable route of marriage, the route which Dumas, for one, was already describing as no more than “legitimized prostitution.”

Marie’s case was typical: the illiterate daughter of a Normandy peasant, whose family could not afford her, she may have been sold as a 12-year-old to her father’s clients and friends. At 15, she had a child, quickly given away for adoption. But her rare grace, darker, taller, and slighter than convention expected, was linked to an unusually sharp intelligence. By the time she was 18 she had been the mistress of first one, then another Parisian aristocrat. Unlike the thousands of women whose lives were hidden and destroyed in the murky depths of the Paris sex-markets, Marie was already a celebrity. Born Alphonsine Rose Plessis, she had renamed herself Marie and prefixed the pseudo-noble “du” to her surname. She must have been a truly unusual person: her lovers included the composer Franz Liszt. “She was the first woman I ever loved,” Liszt wrote to Marie d’Agoult when Duplessis died. “Hers was truly an exquisite nature, and what is generally (perhaps accurately) described as corruption, never touched her heart.”

The radical changes in Parisian society-life after 1848 fast eroded most of Marie’s demi-monde. Ironically, the changes allowed her world to take on its later public role. Within three years, the sensational Dumas roman was on the Paris stage as his no less sensationally successful play. This was the form in which Verdi encountered it. He may even have been at the premiere on February 2, 1852 at the Paris Théâtre du Vaudeville. The first performance of the opera which he derived from the play—called Love and Death (Amore e Morte) at first and only as it neared completion La Traviata, “the one who went astray”—took place barely a year later on March 6, 1853 at Venice’s La Fenice. It was one of the first operas to break with the iron tradition that only humorous works could deal with contemporary subjects.

The power of Verdi’s music is the most obvious cause of the Lady of the Camellias’ endurance. But longevity of this kind is determined by more than its incarnation as a supreme operatic drama. The Dumas play and the book before it were already landmarks in a slow transformation of social attitudes and sympathies. The play, it is true, is rarely staged now, but for generations it was a vehicle for the most celebrated actresses of the time—Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and Edwige Feullière are but three of the names made familiar across the world through their identification with the sad dumas heroine. The original book is still read and well worth reading. Frederick Ashton created a ballet, Marguerite and Armand, in 1963 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and the American choreographer John Neumeier made his own version in Stuttgart for Marcia Haydée 15 years later.

It is in film that the Dumas tragedy has had its most varied existence. Cinematically, Marie is best known as Camille, from the title of the 1936 George Cukor film with Greta Garbo, though Camille was already the name of an American film by Albert Capellani in 1915 with Clara Kimball playing the title role. (The floral sub-text is not incidental. Dumas called his title heroine Marguerite, the French word for daisy; Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave italianized her to Violetta, echoing not only the name of another flower but also the image of violation.) Violetta-Marie-Marguerite-Camille’s fate has not lost its power: it is still used to evoke sympathy in surroundings pretty far from Dumas and Verdi: remember Richard Gere testing Julia Roberts’ sensitivity in Garry Marshall’s 1990 film Pretty Woman by taking her to San Francisco to Traviata; or the delicious Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert four years later, with a drag-queen miming “È strano” to Joan Carden’s voice?

Emotionally evocative as these strains may be, the story nonetheless poses for many people a fundamental question of credibility, especially in Verdi’s operatic version: the central motivating event is a sequence of actions so far distanced from present-day social conventions. But as long as there has been writing from male-dominated, pre-contraceptive history, there have been stories revolving for better or usually worse around “immoral” women, women who fail to conform to the sexual behavior that would preserve male possession and/or the certainty of paternity. Is then the force of Verdi’s opera now no more than a sentimental historical curiosity? Certainly Giorgio Germont’s atrocious moralizing might be thought an insuperable obstacle to La Traviata’s emotional impact. But it is not so, though we may wish it were: rejection of the partners chosen by one’s children is certainly not out-of-date.

Art has a way of making us accept its invented world even when that world is entirely fantastic; as long as it continues we believe in it, warts and all. So any particular incredibility at the turning-point in Dumas-Verdi is in this sense irrelevant: Violetta, like any good artistic creation, lives in her own world, opera’s own fantasy demi-monde, but she is more than a character in that make-believe republic of localized truths. Art on this level stands for greater issues than its immediate subject, and La Traviata appalls and delights because there remain in society groups and individuals who we can feel are unjustly alienated, scorned, or rejected: every one of us may belong at some point in our lives to one or more of these categories. Violetta stands for them all. No matter the Camellia-Lady has recurred in so many guises. Small wonder, too, that so many of those transformations have been in another half-world: film, the most forceful artistic instrument for social change of the past 100 years, just as literature and opera were for the preceding century.

Christopher Hunt was a former artistic administrator with San Francisco Opera. This essay was published in a previous edition of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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