Author René Weis begins by reminding us that La traviata is probably the best loved opera in the world, pointing out that in three recent seasons the Royal Opera House in London has staged thirty performances of the opera, their Violettas including legendary sopranos Renée Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu. All sold out almost instantly, says Weis, demonstrating that 160 years after its premiere in Venice La traviata continues to move modern audiences like no other opera.
Verdi's masterpiece could not exist but for the life of Marie Duplessis, described by Weis as a young woman of 'exquisite demeanour but of the humblest birth'. Duplessis, born in Normandy in 1824, died at the age of 23, in Paris. The opera centres on a sweet and glamorous courtesan, a cocotte or fashionable prostitute. She was Violet Valéry, doomed because of phthisis or pulmonary tuberculosis - that is to say, she suffered from consumption. Many details of La traviata come from the story of Duplessis, as the opera was inspired by the biographical novel La Dame aux Camélias, written by Alexandre Dumas fils within six months of the young woman's death. Weis tells us that the original story is a barely disguised account of the young woman's life. Verdi's opera premiered six years after she died, being a celebration of Violetta and, of course, of Marie Duplessis. Neither Verdi nor his Venetian librettist Piave ever met Duplessis, though both were her contemporaries. However, she did meet, and have an affair with, Franz Liszt, the composer later claiming that she was the first woman that he had truly loved. The name displayed on her tomb in Paris was Alphonsine Plessis. Only at the end of her short life had she changed her name to Marie Duplessis.
The story grows out of the shockingly sordid world of nineteenth-century Parisian prostitution, set in a culture of sex at an early age, when Alphonsine - at age 10 - became the sexual plaything of Normandy farm labourers in a 'swamp of syphilis, poverty and violence', to borrow the words of René Weis. The girl's story is the account of her escape from this squalid world, set in an era when many women of all ages made ends meet by selling themselves.
Today the power of this story remains undiminished. The film Pretty Woman, made in 1990 and starring Richard Gere, who takes Julia Roberts (as a big-hearted Los Angeles prostitute) to see La traviata, not only reimagines La traviata but inserts the opera itself into the plot.
The Real Traviata is an instructive account of an extraordinary world. Several photographs of relevant locations bring the story closer, though the excellent work of René Weis deserves better quality reproduction of the illustrations.
John Robert Brown