Consumption was the 19th century name for TB, tuberculosis. It is a disease that kills at least three operatic heroines, Mimi in La boheme, Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann and Violetta in_ La traviata_. Modern audiences sometimes get a little impatient when the heroine goes pale in Act 3, “Oh no, “ they groan, “not another heroine with a cough…” But a young woman with TB was a common sight two centuries back. There was a TB epidemic in the 19th century and almost half the deaths of people under 25 were attributed to it. It was a disease of the young, and talented. The poet John Keats, the novelist Emily Bronte and the composer Carl Maria von Weber were just three of the artists who died of it.
An attractive illness?
Symptoms of the illness were nervousness, coughing, blood spitting – and above all – paleness. It was called the white plague. Consumptive women were actually considered rather attractive. Marie Duplessis’ sparkling eyes, pale complexion and feverish cheeks were part of her charm, and many of her admirers were excited by the idea that they might be her last lover. Dumas made an impression on Marie by actually caring about her illness, and visiting her when she was ill. (Alfredo makes a similar impression on Violetta).
Doctors noticed that consumptives were naturally feverish and they told their patients to steer clear of excitement, parties and alcohol. It is quite obvious, the moment the curtain goes up, that Violetta is killing herself. There she is in the middle of a party, with a champagne glass in her hand.
One of the cruellest features of the illness is also dramatised in the opera, the spes phthisica, the false hope of recovery. Just before they died the sufferer often thought they were getting better. That is why Violetta gets to her feet at the end of the show and cries out that the pain has gone. The singer playing the Doctor usually shakes his head sadly at this, ‘A bad sign!’ he seems to say to himself. And indeed Violetta falls to the ground a moment later.