A Courtesan’s wages
Money is extremely important in_ La Traviata_. Violetta and Alfredo do not live on air, and the issue of who pays for what, fuels Alfredo’s appalling rudeness in Act 3. Courtesans were notoriously keen on money and many of them invested their earnings to provide for their old age – but not Marguerite du Plessis. She never considered her old age, and spent every penny she got. She bought dresses, jewels, carriages, hired a box at the Opera and generally got through 100,000 francs a year. This was a huge sum, much more than any ordinary young man could afford.
Marguerite (the Marie character in La Dame aux Camellias) was always very frank about the cost of keeping her, and Dumas reproduced her first conversation with him in his novel. “My poor fellow,” said Marguerite, “you have to be very wealthy to love me! You obviously don’t realise that I spend about eight thousand francs a month, and that spending this much has become a complete necessity for me. Can’t you see that I’d ruin you in no time at all?”
It is always difficult to convert sums of money into modern equivalents, but the following prices from 19th Paris might help to put Marguerite’s 100,000 francs into context.
The basic unit of currency in Paris was the franc, which was made up of 100 centimes or sous. The average worker earned about 3 to 4 francs a day (women earned about half this rate), a teacher earned about 300 fr. a year, a priest about 1,000, a clerk 1,300. Cabinet ministers earned 20,000 fr.
The Cost of Living
In Paris a workman’s lunch cost about 40 sous, and a very expensive meal at the Cafe de Paris 500 fr. Corsets cost about 16-18 fr, but a fashionable hat could cost as much as 1,800 fr. The cheapest seat at a decent theatre was about 5 fr, Marguerite’s box at the Theatre Italien, on a 6 month lease, would have cost 5, 475 fr.
French ladies at the opera
Her camellias would have cost 3 fr. each.
The Camellia Mystery
Marie Duplessis always wore a camellia at her breast and acquired the nickname La Dame aux Camellias – the Lady of the Camellias. She liked the flower because it didn’t have a heavy scent (which in her tubercular condition made her breathless) and because she found it a useful way La traviata teachers’ guide 19/20 to signal her availability. Dumas tells us, “For 25 days in every month the camellias were white, and for five they were red. For those five days no man could approach her. No-one ever knew the reason for this variation in colour which I mention but cannot explain…”
Actually Dumas knew exactly what the change of colour signified, he just didn’t dare say so in print.
Things to watch out for:
The set in this production is made of two huge walls which move imperceptibly throughout the show. It means the space is always changing on stage to mark a change of mood, or the end of the scene. See if you can spot it happening.
Two very different women give parties in this opera: Violetta in Act I and Flora in Act II. How do the parties differ?
Watch out for the props and tick off the ones on this list which are absolutely essential:
- Champagne glasses
- One camellia
- Whiskey glasses
- Playing cards
- The photo of Alfredo’s sister
- Violetta’s medicine
- Plates of food
If this was set in the 19th century Violetta would be dying of TB. Actually TB is not mentioned in this production – can you guess why? How do we know that Violetta is ill?
What do you think of the show?
Did you like the music? Was setting it in modern times a good idea? How would you direct it?