At the age of twenty-three, Rose Alphonsine Plessis was buried, under a slightly different name, in the Paris Cemetery of Montmartre, after a years-long battle with tuberculosis. By the age of twenty, she had reached the height of the Parisian demimonde and was absolutely famous in Paris; she is more widely known of today than she ever was in life, but she is not remembered because of literary, scientific, political, or academic achievements. She remains famous, worldwide, 165 years after her death, for gifts of a more transient nature. During her brief stay on earth she was noted for her beauty, intelligence, sensitivity, wild extravagance, and her ability to attract and hold the attentions and financial support of numbers of very wealthy men, and not necessarily one at a time.
Alphonsine Plessis is among the first of the 19th-century grandes horizontales, courtesans who were able to maintain lavish lifestyles and who influenced the dress and tastes of cultured women while inspiring the hopes of pretty shop girls. After her death, hosts of the Paris beau monde turned out for the auction of her worldly goods, necessitated by the staggering debts she left behind. Charles Dickens was in attendance and reported, “One could have believed that [she] was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so deep was the general sadness.”
The woman buried at the base of Montmartre is listed among the notables there as Alphonsine Plessis, though she called herself Marie DuPlessis (affecting noblesse), but she became internationally famous under other names: Marguerite Gautier, in the novel La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous Alexandre Dumas who gave us The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo); Camille, played by Greta Garbo, and many others, in the film of the same name; but most of all she is known as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s seemingly immortal opera, La traviata.
She was born in Normandy on January 15, 1824. Her father was the son of a prostitute and a priest. He owned a draper’s shop, and was a gambler, a drunk and a brute. He married Marie-Louise Deshayes who came from more distinguished stock, but who made a bad marriage. They had two daughters, Rose and a younger sister, but eventually their mother left them with her cousin and fled the brutality of her husband. When Rose was eight years old her mother died and her father continued to leave the girls with various other relatives who had farms nearby. On one of these farms, when she was twelve years old, Rose was allegedly raped or seduced by a young farmhand. When this was discovered Rose was returned to her father.
Within the year, her father decided he was wasting resources sending Rose out as a laundress and he sold her outright to a bachelor of seventy who used her for a year then sent her back to her father. Not wishing to be responsible for her further, he sent Rose to live with relatives in Paris. Soon she would take cheap lodgings of her own in the Latin Quarter and make a meager living as a shop girl, but by the time she was sixteen, she discovered a more lucrative livelihood. She was unusually pretty with porcelain skin, black hair, enormous dark eyes, and was graced with a quick, intelligent wit and charming candor. She educated herself, improved her reading and writing skills, kept up with current events, and generally made herself more interesting for her clients. One of her greatest skills was to appear sincerely and blushingly innocent.
She began to use the name Marie and picked up a number of lovers who came from the highest ranks of French society. Among them were the duc de Guiche-Gramont, the comte Edouard de Perregaux, and at the end of her life, even Franz Liszt. When she was twenty, she was taken up by the elderly and very wealthy comte de Stackelberg, who had been the Russian ambassador to Vienna. He kept her in high style, paying her bills, importing her carriage horses from England, and providing boxes in the best theatres in Paris, but she remained in need of deeper emotional connection.
Her apartment on the elegant boulevard de Madeleine (reference to Mary Magdalene to whom Marie was particularly devoted) was filled with 18th-century furniture, paintings, silks and her modest collection of 200 books. Here, many of the brilliant minds of France gathered at her dinner parties, including Eugène Sue, Honore de Balzac, Theophile Gautier, and of course, Alexandre Dumas, fils.
She met Dumas when they were both eighteen. The illegitimate son of one of the most beloved and famous French authors, he was not in the running to become one of her intimates until he was more established. It was two years before they established a more lasting liaison, which lasted just one year, as the struggling writer was unable to contribute sufficiently to her enormously expensive lifestyle. It is reported that her day-to-day living expenses were in excess of 100,000 francs annually, and this does not include clothes, carriages, servants, housing, or travel.
While they were together her tuberculosis was growing obviously worse and he insisted that she leave her frantic life in Paris and live quietly with him in the countryside. She did this, but couldn’t be satisfied with such a quiet life and soon returned to Paris. As her illness continued to make itself evident, and she feared for her financial security, she accepted a proposal of marriage from her old beau, the comte de Perregaux. They were married in London, but it was a marriage in name only and soon she was back in Paris, where the marriage was not legal, as Perregaux had not published the banns. Their last transaction would occur after her death when he had her body moved to a more fitting gravesite.
Just five months after her passing, Dumas published La Dame aux camélias, which was published in a press run of 12,000 copies, all of which sold, but it was not until Dumas adapted the book into a drama that the work found its audience. In that audience was Giuseppe Verdi and his then mistress Giuseppina Strepponi. La traviata would premiere in Venice just two years later.
Today, though there have been a large number of films based on the life of Rose Alphonsine Plessis, it is as Violetta Valery that this young woman is known and celebrated. Obviously, this isn’t because of her charms, but the many charms of this masterful score, which takes full advantage of the allure of its heroine and the finest examples of vocal expression of the nineteenth century.
We are pleased to present this new production of La traviata for our 28th Season. It was among the first operas that our company produced in the 1980s, and with each reincarnation, audiences continue to embrace La traviata as one of the most cherished evenings in an opera theatre.
La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation