• La Traviata - Literary Sources

    La Traviata – Sources

    Chronology:


    The libretto is based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, who wrote both a novel and a play with the same title.

    The novel was first published in Paris by editor Alexandre Cadot, 1848, in 2 volumes (340 and 362 p.), reprinted in one volume by the same editor in 1851.

    A revised and corrected version was published in 1852 by editor Michel Lévy.

    Another revision with corrections by the author was published by the same editor in 1872.

    The play in five acts with songs was published in Paris by D. Giraud and L. Dagneau in 1852, 105p.

    A corrected text was republished in 1868.

    The play was staged for the first time on February 2, 1852 at the Théâtre du Vaudeville, in Paris. Marguerite was Eugénie Doche, and Armand was Charles Fetcher. Verdi attended a later performance.

    With a libretto by Francesco-Maria Piave, Verdi’s opera Violetta ossia La Traviata opened at La Fenice in Venice on March 6, 1853, with Fanny Salvini-Donatelli (Violetta) and Lodovico Graziani (Alfredo). It was a fiasco, but it was given again to great acclaim at the San Benedetto theater in Venice one year later, on 1856, with Maria Spezia, Candi, and Coletti. It went on to become the second most staged opera of all time.

    The French adaptation of the libretto was published in 1865.

    The real life inspiration for Marguerite/Violetta:


    Alexandre Dumas fils’ story is loosely based on the life of his mistress, the prostitute Alphonsine Plessis, who adopted the nom-de-guerre of Marie Duplessis.

    She was born on January 16, 1824 in Nonant (Orne). She moved to Paris at the age of 14 to live with relatives and work at a grocery store. Rapidly she changed jobs twice, until she was spotted by Nollet, a restaurant owner who installed her in 1840 as a kept woman in an apartment at Rue de L’Arcade. Her meteoric climb to fame continues when the same year Agénor, duc de Guiche (then 21 years old – who grew up to become duc de Gramont and Minister of Foreign Affairs under Napoléon III) becomes her lover and launches her in the Parisian demi-monde, encouraging her to change her name to Marie Duplessis.

    The young prostitute then becomes the lover of a large number of Jockey-Club members. In 1842 Guiche sets up an apartment for her at 28, rue du Mont-Thabor and requires her to take classes in various subjects such as etiquette. She becomes the most elegant woman in the Parisian demi-monde, and moves to larger quarters at 22, Rue d’Antin. A noble Russian aged 80, the comte de Stackelberg, takes her under his wing and installs her at the prestigious address of 11, boulevard de la Madeleine.

    We are in 1844, she is 20 years old, and meets for the first time Alexandre Dumas fils. Their liaison ends one year later on August 30, 1845. In November she falls in love with Franz Liszt and has a brief affair with him. On February 21, 1846 she gets married to Edouard de Perregaux in London, but returns to Paris immediately and separates from him.

    She is sick with tuberculosis and goes to Spa, Baden, and Wiesbaden for rest and healing. On October 18, 1846 Alexandre Dumas fils sends her a letter from Madrid. On February 3, 1847 she dies in Paris after three days of agony. The services happen at the Église de la Madeleine, and she is buried at the Montmartre cemetery, 15th division, 4th line. Her assets are auctioned from February 24 to 27 for 89,017 F at the time, grossly equivalent these days to $400,000. Dumas fils composes an eulogy, which he publishes in his book of poems, Péchés de Jeunesse (Youthful Sins).

    Literary context:


    Alexandre Dumas fils was fascinated with l’abbé Prévost’s 1731 short novel L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, well-known to opera lovers thanks to its various operatic adaptations by Auber (Manon Lescaut), Massenet (Manon), Puccini (Manon Lescaut), and Henze (Boulevard Solitude).
    The author even proposed that his La Dame aux Camélias was an adaptation of Prévost’s masterpiece.

    The relationships between the two works are numerous. From the opening pages of his novel, the narrator makes reference to Prévost’s story, in the fact that he bought from the auction of Marguerite’s possessions a copy of the book, given to her as a gift by Armand Duval (Alfredo in the opera). Not only Marguerite and Manon share many traits, but also other characters are constructed in parallel with those of Prévost: des Grieux and Armand, Prudence Duvernoy resembles Manon’s brother; Duval the father is G.M.; even geographic locations are similar, with Bougival being the equivalent of Chaillot in Manon Lescaut.

    On the other hand, Dumas fils did update the story to the conventions of his time – no more duels, murders or kidnappings, but pressure is exerted by verbal persuasion. The main character - the young woman - becomes more romantic, less callous. Armand becomes more jealous and suspicious, more cruel than des Grieux, to create a more striking contrast with the elevation of Marguerite as loving and vying for sacrifice.

    We are further into romantic ideals of the prostitute rescued by love. Dumas fils confessedly follows the tradition of not only Manon Lescaut, but three other works with similar themes: Victor Hugo’s 1831 drama Marion Delorme; Musset’s novel Frédéric et Bernerette (1838), and his own father’s - the illustrious author of Les Trois Mousquetaires, Alexandre Dumas - Fernande (1844).

    The situation in Marion Delorme is very different. Two young men, Saverny and Didier, duel for the love of the courtesan Marion. They get arrested and comdemned to death for disrespecting Richelieu’s rules that forbid duels. Didier confesses his love for Marion, who pleads to the executioner for his life, without success.

    Musset’s novel is closer to the Traviata theme. This time the courtesan Bernerette starts an affair with Frédéric to get rid of her lover, who then commits suicide. Frightened, Frédéric leaves her, but they get together later for a torrid affair that lasts three months until they run out of money and he becomes jealous. She drinks poison, but is saved. However she quits him anyway without an explanation. Later she dies and he learns that she had left him thanks to the intervention of his father.

    We can find here the inspiration for what happens to Marguerite when Duval the father pushes her away from Armand. This is an interesting point. Some have thought that this episode had some sort of autobiographical aspect, thanks to the author’s involvement with Mlle. Duplessis. It is not so, like Dumas fils himself tells us when he says that the real life Duplessis did not suffer as many hardships as Marguerite, and did not have to endure any pressure from his father, the famous Alexandre Dumas.

    Much the opposite, Mr. Dumas the father approved of his son’s relationship with Duplessis, and seemed content that the young man had landed such an attractive young mistress. From her side, it is said that she was rather interested in bedding both gentlemen, which Mr. Dumas the father declined to accept.

    So, this aspect of the plot was lifted directly from Musset. Dumas fils added to it the issue of social stigma when Duval father says that his daughter Blanche won’t be able to marry a good husband due to her brother’s relationship with a prostitute. This plot device was criticized even at the time as unlikely, since this behavior in a brother should not have shocked prospective in-laws according to the prevailing mores of the time. It wasn’t really unusual for gentlemen of a certain social class to get involved with demi-mondaines, and not so strongly frowned upon as the plot device indicates.

    Alexandre Dumas the father’s novel Fernande is about a woman with a checkered past who is redeemed by her love and self-sacrifice, themes that are seen again in his son’s work.

    In tems of literary period, Romanticism was in decline at the time of La Dame aux Camélias. Victor Hugo’s Burgraves had failed miserably a few years earlier, and Balzac’s first volume of La Comédie Humaine with its cinicism had seen the light of day five years before the publication of Dumas fils' novel.

    In spite of the romantic ideals of love and death that make a strong appearance in his novel, one can also sense a realism that is a predecessor of Flaubert’s. We are less than one decade from the scandal that Madame Bovary represented (including with the author being tried in court for it, and acquitted). Realism took over, and became the dominant style from 1857 through 1880.

    The novel versus the play, versus the opera

    Reading these two works, it is evident that the novel is far superior to the play, in multiple levels. First of all, its realism is much more impressive. We see Marguerite under much less flattering lights, frivolously mocking Armand when she first encounters him during a theater performance, and engaging in malicious talk with a fellow prostitute. She seems callous about money and talks about the monetary transactions in excruciating detail, calculating how much she can extract from her followers. Dumas fils’ language is often crude, such as when he refers to the lady’s "splendid cloaca" – a point that was submitted to censorship in subsequent revisions. Her entourage is not benign and supportive like in the play, but cunning and parasitic. Scenes such as her exhumation from the grave with graphic descriptions of her putrid face and worm-eaten eyes are of an extreme rawness. Marguerite’s death scene is no romantic embrace to a repentant lover like in the play, but a rather painful, long, solitary ordeal that doesn’t spare the reader endless descriptions of shortness of breath, cough, and bodily fluids such as phlegm and blood. It is not pretty, not at all. This goes on and on for several pages, to the point that it becomes uncomfortable. As compared to this, the sugary play – designed to be less shocking to the sensibilities of the high society that attended these theatrical performances – becomes cloying and almost bothersome in its unlikely idealization.

    This makes of the novel a much more convincing depiction of the real-life demi-monde, this Parisian invention that placed these women in-between the world of the high society and that of the working classes, with all the intrigues, back-stabbing, and sordid relationships. For example, Prudence – a retired prostitute and Marguerite’s “friend” – in the novel is a lecherous parasite, while in the play she becomes supportive and caring. Olympe in the play is a friend and Marguerite is supposed to be more attractive. In the novel, however, Olympe is a rival who hates Marguerite and steals men from her, using the fact that she is younger and prettier than the flailing Marguerite (no over-idealization of her beauty here, since tuberculosis does take a toll on her).

    In terms of narration technique, the novel is much more sophisticated. It starts with Marguerite already dead, and introduces a narrator who has never met (he had only known of her and seen her from a distance) her but learns about her from various characters. Details of her life start to surface through devices such as the auction of her earthly possessions, and a relatively fortuitous encounter between the narrator and Armand. The dramatic progression is much more impressive, and it all culminates with a rather depressing and solitary scene. Armand doesn’t make it to her death bed, and is crushed with remorse and grief. He can’t even fathom the reality of her death, and requires the exhumation scene to be fully able to symbolically acknowledge it.

    A bit of trivia: someone has given himself or herself the trouble of counting: characters cry 79 times in La Dame aux Camélias.

    The play on the other hand is very linear and follows the familiar structure of the opera, which is narration-wise much more closely related to it than to the novel – rather than the latter's flashbacks and complex timeline, in the play events and scenes progress through simple lines: Marguerite is alive at the beginning, is a party girl, Armand declares his love, they go to the countryside, Duval the father intervenes, Marguerite goes back to her life of a demi-mondaine in Paris, gets sicker, Armand returns and learns of his father’s deception, she dies in his arms.

    However – and this is where Piave the librettist proves his mettle – the opera, in spite of the fact that the sung line is more time consuming to deliver than the spoken line therefore librettists must implement severe cuts, does more with less. Not only Verdi’s spectacular music is able to impact on the opera all the raw emotions that are present in the novel but absence in the play, but Piave’s libretto is actually impregnated with more literary value. Compare, for instance, the poetry (or lack thereof) of the play’s Brindisi song with the opera’s, in terms of lyrics.

    This one is the play’s – interesting, but sort of mundane :

    Il est un ciel que Mahomet
    Offre par ses apôtres.
    Mais les plaisirs qu’il nous promet
    Ne valent pas les nôtres.
    Ne croyons à rien
    Qu’à ce qu’on tient bien,
    Et pour moi je préfère
    A ce ciel douteux
    L’éclair de deux yeux
    Reflété dans mon verre.

    Dieu fit l’amour et le vin bons,
    Car il amait la terre.
    On dit parfois que nous vivons
    D’une façon légère.
    On dit ce qu’on veut,
    On fait ce qu’on peut,
    Fi du censeur severe
    Pour qui tout serait
    Charmant, s’il voyat
    À travers notre verre!


    Now, look at Piave’s expressive and romantic verve here:

    Libiamo, libiamo ne'lieti calici
    che la bellezza infiora.
    E la fuggevol, fuggevol ora s'inebrii
    a voluttà
    Libiam ne'dolci fremiti
    che suscita l'amore,
    poiché quell'ochio al core onnipotente va.
    Libiamo, amore, amor fra i calici
    più caldi baci avrà

    Ah! Libiam, amor, fra' calici più caldi baci avrà

    Tra voi tra voi saprò dividere
    il tempo mio giocondo;
    Tutto è follia, follia nel mondo
    ciò che non è piacer
    Godiam, fugace e rapido
    e'il gaudio dell'amore,
    e'un fior che nasce e muore,
    ne più si può goder
    Godiamo, c'invita, c'invita un fervido
    accento lusinghier.

    Godiamo, la tazza, la tazza e il cantico,
    la notte abbella e il riso;
    in questo, in questo paradiso ne scopra il nuovo dì

    La vita è nel tripudio
    Quando non s'ami ancora
    Nol dite a chi l'ignora,
    E'il mio destin così...

    Godiamo, la tazza, la tazza e il cantico,
    la notte abbella e il riso;
    in questo, in questo paradiso ne scopra il nuovo dì


    We don’t even need Verdi’s music here to realize that the clever repetitions and the parallel witty dialogue between the two protagonists become several times more efficient than Dumas fils’ verses in conveying the absorbing lifestyle of the revelers.

    Also, while Piave disposes of fewer lines to transmit his message, he is very efficient in restoring Violetta’s despair and solitude that is in the novel but isn’t as clear in the play. Just with this one verse he brings it all back, very skillfully:

    “Sola, abandonata, in questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi…”

    Bravo, Piave, good imagery, fast, to the point, and powerful. It is interesting to notice that in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut we find almost the same words – Sola, perdutta, abandonata…”

    Of these three versions of the story – novel, play, libretto – the latter seems to be the superior one, a notch above even the novel, and definitely better in my opinion than the play, even when considered without the music. It reads better, it carries more dramatic punch, and it is more deeply emotional.

    Another difference between the novel and the opera is the pervasive quasi-misogynistic tone of the former. While Dumas Fils seems to try his best to be sympathetic to Marguerite, one wonders what lingering resentments the author has kept from his affair with Mlle. Duplessis, because he can hardly disguise a certain contempt for these women.

    Much later, after the story had already made it into opera, Alexandre Dumas fils wrote the following, to signal what he believed to be the standpoint of the prostitute: “Ah! L’Homme … puisque tu veux du plaisir, je t’en fournirai; mais tu me le payeras non seulement de ta fortune, mais de tes muscles, de ta raison, de ton sang, de ton honneur, de ton âme.” (My translation: Oh, Man… since you want pleasure, I’ll provide it to you, but you’ll pay for it not only with your fortune, but with your muscles, your reason, your blood, your honor, and your soul.” A rather bitter view, one might say.

    Not only Dumas fils has some harsh words for prostitutes in his novel, he apologizes at various times when he seems to defend Marguerite, by reminding the reader that not all prostitutes are capable of noble acts like she was. He ends the novel by reaffirming it once more:

    “Je ne suis pas l’apôtre du vice… l’histoire de Marguerite est une exception, je le répète, mais s’il c’eût été une généralité, ce n’eût pas été la peine de l’écrire.” (I’m not an apologist for vice… Marguerite’s story is an exception, I repeat, but if it were the general case, it wouldn’t have been worthy of writing about.”)

    Verdi did not write the libretto, but it is historically known how much he controlled Piave and made him do exactly what he wanted. So, we can attribute to Verdi the decisively more sympathetic depiction of Violetta.

    This is to be understood in the context of his life. Verdi had been approached before to set to music a similar story, and reacted strongly, saying “it’s not proper to put a prostitute on the operatic stage.” But then, when he made of Giuseppina Strepponi his companion (and later, second wife) and she was shunned by the local high society in Busseto due to her checkered past (she gave birth to a child out of wedlock, and there are hints that she had at one point prostituted herself before becoming a famous soprano), Verdi was flabbergasted, and decided to show to the world that women of less than spotless reputation were also capable of magnanimous acts and feelings.

    With La Traviata Verdi wanted, in his words, to tackle “a theme for the current times.” He was clearly addressing his contemporaries and their hypocrisy. As opposed to Dumas fils' ambivalent position, Verdi was clearly on Violetta’s side. And then, it is interesting to notice that Verdi’s beloved first wife, the young woman who died prematurely and left him in profound despair, was called Margherita.

    La Dame aux Camélias and La Traviata thus demonstrate the crossroads and overlaps between these extraordinary artists’ real lives and experiences, and their art. We, the public, are the privileged spectators of these ambivalent and deep-rooted enduring emotions that the artists have left for us. The camellia has not wilted.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: La Traviata - Literary Sources started by Almaviva View original post


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