The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis

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Release Date: 
October 30, 2015
Oxford University Press
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Fans of Verdi's opera La Traviata and readers who enjoy biographies of courtesans won't want to miss this gem by Rene Weis, a regular contributor to the Royal Opera House programs. Fans of Moulin Rouge will also enjoy this biography set in 19th century Paris. After all, Marie Duplessis is Satine, the courtesan with the heart of gold: The parallels between the stories are impossible to miss, from the pauper in love with the beautiful and kind courtesan everyone clamors for, to the lies to spare him, and the sudden and sad death at the age of 23.

Everything readers and fans of the opera will have wanted to know is gathered here in this well-researched tome. The Real Traviata is dense with detail, from the primary sources scholars love (letters, diaries, obituaries, and newspapers) out of French and German archives to biographies, criticism, and other secondary sources, all of which are listed in a section labeled References. Anyone doing research on Verdi must absolutely have access to this book.

Verdi renames Marie Duplessis (as she renamed herself from Alphonsine Plesiss) as Violetta Valery in his opera, and he is not the only one to immortalize the rags to riches story of this amazing young woman. Her lover, Alexandre Dumas fils wrote La Dame aux Camelias about her. Apparently, Marie had a fondness for the flower, and wore them all the time—a single white camellia at her breast signified she was sexually available while a red one said she wasn't.

Author Weis does a phenomenal job of recreating 19th century Paris, painting the streets and towns as readers follow Marie's life from small village to the great city and the foul alleys in between. Used and abused from a young age by her father, Marie eventually escapes. Using her wits and her beauty, she finds wealthy and influential protectors to raise her up from the streets and into Parisian society. Fans of Eva Peron's story may also enjoy this, given the similarity to the Madonna movie, though this is far less fast paced.

It is very early on that Marie is groomed to the life of a courtesan at the tutelage of the Duc du Morny, half-brother to President-Emperor Napoleon III, who falls in love with the teenage prostitute. He teaches her etiquette, piano, an appreciation for opera, and raises her from “a mere 'grisette' to a 'cocotte.'” She becomes pregnant with Charles' son and delivers him after a difficult birth, but the child dies, conveniently for the Duc, who already had one illegitimate child by a duchess, which was one thing entirely separate from having one by a prostitute.

It will be confusing to some readers that other books about Marie Duplessis have failed to uncover as much as Rene Weis did with his research, leaving some to wonder if it was lazy research on the part of other biographers, or how it was Weis managed to access archives others did not. It would be interesting to read the scholarship trail that created this biography.

At the back of the book with the references are a chronology of Marie Duplessis's life, an index, and endnotes to the chapters.

Readers will revel in the aristocratic splendor in the worlds of the famous—Dumas and Liszt, counts and emperors—and the rivalry that arose between Marie and Alice Ozy, Napoleon III's lover. But there is a thread of sadness woven into the tale, the abuse and filth, the pain and suffering, the loss of children and lovers, the fear of insecurity, and eventually death. But while Marie's light burns, it burns very bright.