Madame Alphonsine Rose Plessis, better known as Marie Duplessis, Countess of Pérregaux, was twenty-three years old when she died of tuberculosis in 1847. Despite the title, acquired by marriage in 1846, she is not part of the nobility, on the contrary: she lives in conditions of extreme poverty since she was a child and with an abusive and alcoholic father; she then tries in every way to survive by doing the most disparate jobs. When, at sixteen years old, she moves to Paris to seek her fortune, Marie becomes the lover of a merchant and begins to make herself known in the high society of the French capital which, in a short time, elevates her to the center of the social life of the time. According to her testimonies, Marie is a very charming young woman, impeccably educated and self-taught, interested in music. Forerunner of the Marinella Fabrizio De André sings about more than a century later, this young courtesan lives her “day like roses” for about six years and indelibly marks the culture of her time, coming down to us.
There are many lovers of Madame Duplessis, but the most authoritative of them remains Alexandre Dumas fils, with whom she spends eleven months in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, near Paris. In memory of this girl with black hair, a very clear complexion and elongated eyes, the writer dedicates her one of the most beautiful novels in French literature, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias).
Fascinated by the drama he watches in France in 1852, Giuseppe Verdi decides to make an opera out of it, helped by the librettist Francesco Maria Piave – who is informed of the choice in a letter in which the Maestro asks him to get to work:
“[…] so that this subject is as original and captivating as possible for an audience that is always striving to seek a boundary to its own morality in unusual topics”
Written in about forty days, La Traviata is part of the so-called “popular trilogy” (together with Trovatore and Rigoletto) which features three non-noble characters as protagonists. To escape the control of the censorship and not make his criticism of the vices of his contemporary bourgeois world too evident, Verdi is forced to move the setting from the 19th to the 18th century – praying in the most absolute way not to force the singers wearing the typical wigs of the eighteenth century, to avoid making the melodrama excessively plastered.
It is 6th March 1853 – just two months after the debut of Trovatore in Rome – when the curtain rises at the Fenice in Venice to begin the premiere of Verdi’s new opera. Probably due to the inadequate skills of the performers and them not being suitable even from a physical/aesthetic point of view, the representation is, in the words of the composer himself, “a fiasco” (a flop). Verdi, however, is neither surprised nor he regrets it, having already expressed his doubts about the company with the theater managers and going so far as to prohibit any other performance if they do not change at least the lead singers. Furthermore, he writes to the publisher Ricordi:
“[…] we don’t investigate the causes, that’s the story. My fault or the singers? […] Time will judge”
and to a friend from Genoa:
“[…] I believe that the last word on Traviata is not that of last night, they will see it again and we will see!”
Far-sighted like all great geniuses, but more likely sure of his own abilities and the validity of the work, Giuseppe Verdi returns to work on it to bring the new version – the definitive one – on stage on 15th May 1854 at the San Benedetto theater in Venice. From this moment on, the fate of Traviata is studded with successes that lead it to be, today, the most represented of the last four seasons at an international level with 629 performances.
The protagonist, Violetta Valéry, resembles both the Marguerite Gautier of Dumas’ novel and the “real” Marie Duplessis. All three share a short life as high-class courtesans having known poverty, passion and the disease that leads them to death. The most striking thing, however, is the great sacrifice that Marguerite and Violetta – based on what happened to Marie with the duke Agénor de Gramont – make to safeguard the good name of their beloved (Armand Duval/Alfredo Germont) in society and that leads them to complete a spiritual redemption, despite the debauchery of their lives.
The work that Verdi performs musically and Piave dramaturgically on the character of Violetta is the most refined and complete one can ask for. During the opera, we perceive a change that is both vocal and psychological. From the “mechanical nightingale”, interpretable only by an agile soprano who quickly reaches very high-pitched notes, which we learn to know in the first act, we come to a young woman characterized by a dramatic voice, deep even in the high tones, passing, in the second act, through the suffering of the fulfillment of the sacrifice for Alfredo’s love sung with the voice of a lyric soprano. This is a process aimed at showing the true personality of Violetta, often considered frivolous and vaguely disposed to Christian repentance, immortalized one step away from death, in the darkness of her room during the period of Carnival (taking place outside her home as if nothing was happening), in the splendid and tragic aria Addio del passato.
Despite her young age, Violetta is fully aware of what awaits her and her own memory, she often turns to God accompanied by a melody that follows her like an omen from the prelude to the first act. Worldly life, the mechanical nightingale, parties in respectable society, even the love of Alfredo – who returns to her when she is exhaling his last breaths and whose father comes to her bedside to ask for forgiveness when it’s too late – they are now memories. The brief existence of Violetta Valéry, despite the glitter of the facade, hides the pain of those “most beautiful things” that live “just one day like roses”.
Another fundamental element of Verdi’s work is the conception of time. The protagonist knows she doesn’t have long left to live, that her illness is wearing her down more and more rapidly. We can hear this, musically, in the use of the waltz – at the time considered an immoral dance because people dance together “closed” and therefore also descriptive of the main character – in three octaves which represents spirals, vortices in which Violetta is imprisoned and which, often, decreasing by triplets, becomes faster and faster. The famous Libiamo ne’ felici calici is the best-known example of waltz written by Verdi, to be performed rigorously without any choreography on stage, whose interval of a sixth is the musical transposition of the gesture made by raising the glass during the toast.
It is an emblematic work by the master from Parma, which gives dignity, like the novel by Dumas, to the unfortunate story of a young woman who, after her death, fate wants to deliver to the world.