Behind Verdi’s ‘Fallen Woman’

By Iris Smyles
Iris Smyles introduced the East Hampton simulcast of “La Traviata” from the Met last month.

Verdi’s “La Traviata,” translated as “The Fallen Woman,” is about a courtesan named Violetta and her tragic love story with the young bourgeois Alfredo. It’s worth noting that in the early 1800s, the time during which this story was written, women had few options. 

Marriage was generally undertaken as a matter of duty, family, and financial considerations and had little if anything to do with love. Single women, that is, those who were not lucky enough to be married off by their families and thus provided for by a man, or else refused to marry for such mercenary reasons, could either: 

1. Join a convent. 

2. Find a job in a shop or factory that offered a meager living and promised no social mobility.

Or 3. Become a whore. Or better, a professional mistress. Or even better, a courtesan — a position of the highest honor among those whom polite society considered “dishonorable.” “Polite society” meaning polite wives who, given the fact of their having married for money and social standing, might today earn the epithet of “gold digger.” Whores who? 

Their similarly respectable husbands, meanwhile, were, as the patrons of these ignobles, their devoted long-term lovers. They supported the courtesans lavishly, often fell deeply and exclusively in love with them, and many courtesans, under the financial protection of these men, lived glamorous, relatively liberated lives of high style.

Unlike prostitutes, courtesans were educated, bright, beautiful, and chic — living by their charm and wit, they had to be — and with that, they could have their pick of beaus. While a prostitute would be picked up off the street, a courtesan in her well-appointed rooms had suitors, dates, from among whom she could choose to enter into a relationship. In that sense, there was more possibility for a courtesan to attain the Western ideal of romantic love than a respectable wife whose marriage was likely arranged and whose role within that arrangement was tightly circumscribed by the laws of propriety. 

The character of Violetta in “La Traviata” is based on the real-life courtesan Marie Duplessis, whose benefactors included the composer Franz Liszt (he reportedly wished to live with her) and Alexandre Dumas fils, the illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas, famed author of “The Three Musketeers,” and a lowly dressmaker. Notably, Duplessis, before becoming a courtesan, was a dressmaker as well.

By the time Duplessis was 20, the year Dumas met her, she had established herself in Paris as a much-admired courtesan and host of a popular salon where politicians, writers, and artists regularly gathered for stimulating conversation. Wives, respectably at home, were not permitted to enter these sophisticated salons of the demimonde. So, while courtesans were denied entry into polite society, they were unique among women of their day, in that they could go everywhere a wife couldn’t, could participate in conversations among the most intellectual, accomplished, and powerful men of their day. 

Congruently, the courtesans were prized, above all else, for their intelligence, their autodidactic education, their talents — musical skill, painting, or writing, etc. — their wit. If these women were looked down upon for their low social rank, a circumstance one was born into and had little hope to rise from, they were conversely appreciated for their high cultivation. 

And so Duplessis, while not permitted entry into the polite homes of married women, might be seen at the opera in grand dress or riding in the Bois de Boulogne. She even had her portrait painted by the esteemed Edouard Vienot. In sum, she was a celebrity, with all that word’s consequent glory and shame.

Dumas fils, meanwhile, born of ignoble origins himself — that is, out of wedlock to his father’s low-born mistress, though he would eventually be acknowledged by his father and so could be received in polite society — was 20 when he met and fell in love with Duplessis. The details of their affair are known only to them. What is known to us is that Duplessis remained on good terms with all of her boyfriends/benefactors after their relationships ended, as most relationships do. 

After her affair with Dumas fils, Duplessis would go on to marry a French nobleman, a count, but the marriage would prove brief, as she would succumb to tuberculosis at the age of 23, her new husband and one of her former lovers, another count, by her side when she expired. Her funeral, in Montmartre Cemetery, is said to have been attended by hundreds, which is, I think, a pretty good send-off for a whore. Would that we were all so well liked.

At 23 Dumas fils wrote his first novel, “The Lady of the Camellias,” about Duplessis. Published within a year of Duplessis’s death, the book was an immediate best seller. Commissioned shortly thereafter to adapt his book into a play, he thus began a long and prodigious career as a playwright, his fame even eclipsing that of his father. This play would go on to be adapted many times over, most notably perhaps into Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” in 1853, five years after Duplessis’s death. 

Verdi had wanted to give the opera a contemporary, realistic setting, but the authorities at that time insisted it be set deeper into the past, the 1700s, the patina of history perhaps making an impolite love story such as this one, about a celebrated if shunned figure, presentable to polite society. Husbands and wives thus could attend the opera together, taking in for their respectable pleasure the tragic life story of one of their world’s greatest celebrities and feigned secrets. 

It was not until the 1880s that the opera was finally set in the then-present. The current adaptation is set in an ambiguous now, which raises the question of its audience, who would Duplessis be were she born today? And would she or should she be an object of scorn, envy, pity, fascination, or love? 

It’s important to remember the true-life origins of “La Traviata” and with that acknowledge the societal traps set for women then and now, the hypocritical judgments and various barriers that every woman faces, whether she chooses to marry or remains alone, that work to keep her in her place.

From one whore to another, take it away, Violetta!

Iris Smyles, the fiction editor of The Star’s East magazine, is the author of “Iris Has Free Time” and “Dating Tips for the Unemployed.” She introduced “La Traviata” at Guild Hall on March 11 for its screening in the Met Live in HD series, which continues on April 22 at 1 p.m. with Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”