BOOK REVIEW / Tart with a golden heart: Violetta and her sisters: The Lady of the Camellias - Nicholas John: Faber & Faber, pounds 8.99

Simon Rees
Friday 13 May 1994 23:02

La Traviata opens with a drinking party, so it is appropriate that this symposium on the sources and spin-offs of Verdi's opera should have a gala feel about it. Edited by Nicholas John of ENO, it is a collection of essays, interviews, excerpts, and observations around the theme of the Lady with the Camellias, which gives the impression of a gigantic opera programme. It has a similar butterfly manner of darting from topic to topic, leaving readers to believe they are making their own minds up, while steering them towards one particular reading of the novel, the play, the opera - even the various movie versions.

Alphonsine Plessis, the original lady of the camellias, changed her name to Marie Duplessis, became the mistress first of Alexandre Dumas fils and then of Franz Liszt, and eventually married Comte Edouarde de Perregeux. After her death she became the Marguerite Gautier of Dumas' novel La Dame aux camelias, besides a bunch of lesser manifestations, and then into the Violetta of La Traviata.

It is the opera that truly immortalised Alphonsine, putting the street-prostitute turned courtesan turned artists' mistress turned wife into an emblem both of Second Empire Paris, and of the condition of women in a male-dominated society. It is the ultimate three-handkerchief opera, and audiences feel cheated if they do not weep over papa Germont bullying Violetta into submission in Act II, and over her death-scene in Act III. 'Makes you feel such a damn fool,' said one friend of mine emerging tearstained from the auditorium after her nth Traviata, but, as another friend said as I came similarly bedraggled out of the Zeffirelli version, everyone loves a whore with a heart of gold.

It is a paradox that it should have been left to men to tell the story of the heroine who uses white and red camellias to advertise her menstrual cycle, takes on a young aristocrat as a kept man, declares her passion for life to the last gasp, and is only browbeaten into temporary defeat by a plea made supposedly on behalf of another woman. George Sand did not tell her tale, although she tackled the question of indissoluble marriages as a kind of forced prostitution. Marie D'Agoult, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Louise Colet wrote on women's lives, and selections from their little-known works are presented here in English, often for the first time. There are also letters from Marie Duplessis herself, those not burnt by her disapproving in-laws.

The core of the book is in the critique presented in articles by Alessandra Comini, who gives the title and the key-note to the collection; Estela V Welldon on the prostitute-client relationship; Phyllis Luman Metal, a Californian artist who did a stint on the Avenue Foch; Barbara Cartland, who remembers meeting Doris Keane (Mme Cavallini in Romance, a stage adaptation of the story) and tells us what Real Love is all about; and a vast collection of nuns, novelists, psychiatrists, art-historians, actors (Everett Quinton, who played Marguerite Gautier in Camille, a gay version), and yet more dramaturges.

But it is in her stage reincarnations, not in scholarly studies, that Marie-Marguerite-Violetta lives to die again, night after night, in the one opera that does most to keep the art-form going. There are accounts by Margot Fonteyn and Peter Brook of Ashton's ballet, Marguerite and Armand, with its designs by Cecil Beaton and blow-ups of Nureyev all over the set. Violettas such as Josephine Barstowe, Helen Field, the Finnish Riika Hakola and Irmgard Arnold of the Komische Oper discuss everything from cabalettas to corsets in their accounts of performing the sung role. The composer Rhian Samuel exposes (in one of the few bits of musical analysis) how Germont's cries of 'Piangi, piangi, o misera' (Weep, weep, o unhappy one - no, let's not have that as a surtitle) can tear at the heartstrings. Sophie Fuller, in an argument hard to swallow, or follow, complains that Violetta does not get all the best tunes, except once she has already been defeated. The twist of the book is towards a reading of an independent, self-determining Violetta-Marguerite-Marie who is in command of her own career and destiny. The contemporary evidence presented (including the pictures by Gavarni and others) seems to nudge towards a more pessimistic view: a woman led astray, not from society's prevailing ethics but from her own true ends and aspirations.

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