Courtesans

What’s the Problem?

The first question a modern audience asks after a performance of Traviata is why? Why can’t Alfredo and Violetta stop the story in its tracks by simply getting married?

The answer is that the story was originally set in the middle of the 19th century – a time when you just couldn’t marry anyone you liked. Not if you wanted to stay on speaking terms with your family. Alfredo comes from a respectable family, Violetta does not: worse, she’s a courtesan, a fallen woman.

The Original Violetta

Violetta is based on an historical woman, Marie Duplessis, the queen of the demi-monde – the half world of rich men and their mistresses. Marie came from peasant stock, but her beauty and good sense ensured her a glittering career as a courtesan. She made her living by entertaining and offering her services as an escort and mistress. It was like being a high class prostitute, with none of the sordid trappings of prostitution.

Marie had her own apartment, a carriage and horses, a box at the opera, and one lover at a time. That lover had to be extremely rich; Marie got through 100,000 francs a year.

A Short Career

In 1845 a young French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, met Marie Duplessis and had a brief affair with her. But Dumas was too poor to keep her and after 11 months had to make way for a richer lover. Two years later Marie died of tuberculosis, she was only 23.

Dumas immortalised her in two works, his novel La Dame aux Camellias, and a long-running play of the same name. He tried to describe her: “She was tall, dark-haired with a pink and white complexion and long slanting eyes, like those of a Japanese woman. Her lips were the colour of cherries and she had the most beautiful teeth in the world.” Everybody noticed her teeth. Marie used to laugh and say that it was lying that kept them so white.

Marie knew she was dying but, as a courtesan can’t afford to take sick leave, it appears she decided to make the best of her youth and enjoy herself as best she could. Unfortunately that involved dancing, parties and champagne – a sure fire way for a TB sufferer to kill herself.

Living with a Courtesan

In spite of her fame, Marie completely understood her place. She could be the queen of the demi-monde but, if she’d ever tried to move into polite society, she would have been shunned. Unfairly, the men in the demi-monde had it both ways. Most of them were rich youngsters having a good time, and could slip back into respectable life whenever they liked. Unless…

Marrying a Courtesan

19th century France was a mixture of practical good sense and ferocious intolerance. As long as the demi-monde and the ordinary world didn’t overlap, there was no trouble. However if a young man and a courtesan began to live together, or worse if he actually married her, then there was an uproar. This is what happens in La traviata and as soon as Giorgio Germont, realises his son is living with his mistress, he rushes up from the country to save the family name.

And, if the French were rigid and intolerant, the Italians were even worse –as Verdi discovered.

Verdi in Paris

Verdi turned up in Paris in 1847, just as Marie lay dying. Nobody recognised him, so he went to the opera and the theatre, saw Alexandre Dumas’s play, La Dame aux Camellias, and simply enjoyed himself. He wrote to a friend, “I am enjoying total freedom in Paris. Nobody knows me, and everything is going well…’

Verdi’s Mistress

One of the reasons Verdi was so cheerful was that his mistress, Giuseppina Strepponi, lived only a block away. He visited her constantly, introduced her to his in-laws (his wife was dead) and extended his holiday in Paris from three months to two years. However, love in Paris was one thing, love back home, in a small Italian town, was quite another.

When Verdi got back to Italy he took Giuseppina with him. He set her up in the family home, in the backwater of Busetto, and suddenly found the ceiling fall on him. His fellow townsmen were outraged. Giuseppina was denounced as a whore, stones were thrown at his windows, his family were beside themselves – but Verdi simply retreated. He sat at his piano and wrote to a friend, “I’m composing La Dame aux Camellias, which will probably be called La traviata. A story for our own age…”