The literary background that led to the creation of Verdi’s La traviata is multi-layered. While many people think that the opera’s libretto is based upon the true story of the author Alexandre Dumas fils (meaning junior) with the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis (born Alphonsine Plessis), in actuality an earlier episode from her life probably gave Dumas more of the story line for his novel, The Lady of the Camelias (La Dame aux Camélias), than did his short and stormy relationship with her.
Marie was born in 1824 to a modest family in the Normandy region of France. Her father was a notorious drunkard and abusive to the whole family. The most notorious of his acts was to try to burn his wife alive in their own house. After her later death, he managed to sell Alphonsine into prostitution. She was one of the many “grisettes” of Paris… young women who worked in small shops during the day, and sold themselves to men of modest means at night. Our Mimi of La boheme fame was probably a grisette….at least in the original novel Scenes from the Life of Boheme by Henri Murger.
Since this was to be Alphonsine’s life in any case, one might say that she was lucky to be noticed one evening by Agénor de Gramont, the Duke of Guiche, one of the most well-known dandys of Paris. Alphonsine was 16 years old, he was 21. He acted as a sort of French Henry Higgens to her Eliza….bettering her position in many ways. He installed her in an apartment on the Rue de Mont Thabor in Paris, gave her a horse and carriages, servants and beautiful gowns. Not only that, he was responsible for helping her fill the gaps in her education. Under his watch, she learned to read, to write…even to play the piano! And it was at this moment that she changed her name from Alphonsine Plessis to the more chic Marie Duplessis.
Agénor de Gramont is much like Armand Duval of Dumas’ novel. The family did not at all appreciate that Gramont flaunted his mistress in public, and it is fairly certain that his father, the Duke of Guiche, made a personal appeal to Marie to give up his son for the same reason that Dumas put into the mouth of Armand Duval’s father: that the marriage of his daughter would be jeopardized by the scandalous life his son was leading. The words of the novel (in English) were “I have a daughter, young, beautiful, pure as an angel. She is marrying a man who loves her, she is entering an honorable family that wants for all to be as honorable as in mine.”
These words of the novel were taken almost unaltered from Dumas’ novel to use in that scene of Act II of Verdi’s La traviata in the section “Pura siccome un angelo.”
The scene from Act II of Verdi’s La traviata in which Germont comes to convince Violetta to give up his son is the turning point in the opera, and musically one of the most beautiful and beloved scenes in operatic repertoire.
Please join us for this, as well as the many other delights of the great music and stage craft known as La traviata!