Marie Duplessis was born in 1824 to a humble family in Nonant-le-Pin, in north-western France. Hers is the classic rags-to-riches story, complete with a mother who died when she was young and an alcoholic father. When she was 15, she moved to Paris and succeeded in finding work in a dress shop. The following year she began working as a courtesan, becoming a favourite among many influential men, including the nobility and Franz Liszt. Marie the comte de Stakelberg bought her a coach, a team of the finest horses, paid for her cook and maid, and bought her a fashionable apartment on the boulevard Madeleine.
Alexandre Dumas fils — son of Alexandre Dumas of The Three Musketeers fame — was the same age as Duplessis and they became lovers when they were twenty. Three years later she was dead from ‘consumption', which may have been tuberculosis, or a euphemism for syphilis. Soon after Dumas' novel cum memoir La Dame aux Camélias, was published.
In his book, Dumas became “Armand Duval” and Duplessis was “Marguerite Gautier”. In 1852 Dumas adapted his novel for the stage, and the following year Verdi's opera received its premiere. For Verdi, Dumas became “Alfredo Germont” and Duplessis became “Violetta Valéry”.
In the fourteen years since the teenage country girl had arrived in Paris she had lived extravagantly, died famously (hundreds attended her funeral), and her life had been the inspiration for a novel, a play and an opera, the last of which, an undisputed masterpiece.
After her death, poet and novelist Theophile Gautier wrote,
More than once, on the boulevard des ltaliens, at the opera, at all the shows where it is almost impossible to secure a seat, Parisians will undoubtedly have spotted, in the most desirable box in the theatre, a young woman of exquisite demeanour. They will have admired those chaste, oval features, her gorgeous dark eyes shadowed by long lashes, the purest arching eyebrows, a nose of the most exquisite and delicate curve, her aristocratic shape that marked her out as a duchess for those who did not know her. Her fresh bunches of flowers, the elegant taste of her clothes, the splash of diamonds, all underpinned this impression. She was a duchess but her duchy consisted of Bohemia… by a twist of fate she was born a peasant girl in Normandy.
Gautier also wrote that her skin was the “texture of camellias”.
It wasn't a casual reference; Duplessis loved camellias. She lived extravagantly with her allowances from her lovers and an invoice from 1843 from her flower shop details the many arrangements of camellias that she had ordered, above all, white. “Camellias were her calling card,” says René Weis in her book The Real Traviata. “A red camellia meant that she was sexually unavailable, while a white one signalled the contrary. Dumas reports that she wore a red one during four days every month and a white one during the other twenty-four: no-one, he remarks with goading disingenuousness, ever grasped what this meant.”
In Verdi's opera, it is usual for a Violetta to be forty onwards: Diana Damrau was over 40 when she debuted in the role, Mariella Devia was approaching 50, Teresa Stratas was in her mid-40s when she appeared in Franco Zeffirelli's film, and Joan Sutherland's recording with Luciano Pavarotti was made when she was in her mid-50s. One of the youngest, Maria Callas, made her debut as Violetta when she was 28, and recorded it when she was 30.
Franco Maria Piave's libretto of La traviata simply states that she is a courtesan, and besides, Violetta Valéry is not Marguerite Gautier. Dumas chose 30-year-old Eugénie Doche as his Marguerite on stage; Greta Garbo was the same age when she played Marguerite in George Cukor's 1936 film, Camille. And Marguerite Gautier is not Marie Duplessis either, but how thrilling to hear someone of Duplessis' age singing Violetta, which is something that the 23-year-old soprano from Kazakhstan, Maria Mudryak, has been doing. First at her ‘home' theatre, Astana Opera, last year, then at the opera houses of Florence, Genoa and Naples.
I am happy to be able to play this role at the same age as the original Violetta. The character stands out because of its freshness, the exaggeration of feelings during one's youth and the integrity of adhering to life's ideals. With her love for Alfredo, whom she must give up, all her feelings are intensified, almost exaggerated.
As I am of the same age as 23-years-old Violetta, maybe I can interpret her with more desperation; when she falls in love, when she suffers because she has to leave Alfredo, and when she dies. The feelings of a 23-year-old are more extreme than someone later in life.
Mudryak, who is hoping to play Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, Norma, and the Donizetti queens, in the future, is delighted that right now she is getting many opportunities to play Violetta. Next season she will play Violetta in Lorenzo Amato's new production of La traviata at Teatro San Carlo in Naples, under the baton of Daniel Oren.
I love everything about this role, from the music composed by the great Verdi, to the character Dumas created which is, at the same time, strong and fragile. I have understood that this role is a very good vocal fit for me, and the audiences seem to agree. It is definitely my favourite role.
How could she not love a character based on Marie Duplessis! Gautier besottedly wrote,
Such was her magnetism that whole diamond necklaces freely wound themselves around her neck, longing to rest on her soft bosom, while the best carriages and finest horses in town volunteered to carry her, just as the most exclusive designers of Venetian mirrors in Paris relished the thought that she would admire herself in their furniture.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.