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The Real Traviata is the rags-to-riches story of a tragic young woman whose life inspired one of the most famous operas of all time, Verdi's masterpiece La traviata, as well as one of the most scandalous and successful French novels of the nineteenth century, La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas fils.
The woman at the centre of the story, Marie Duplessis, escaped from her life as an abused teenage girl in provincial Normandy, rising in an amazingly short space of time to the apex of fashionable life in nineteenth century Paris, where she was considered the queen of the Parisian courtesans. Her life was painfully short, but by sheer willpower, intelligence, talent, and stunning looks she attained such prominence in the French capital that ministers of the government and even members of the French royal family fell under her spell.
In the 1840s she commanded the kind of 'paparazzi' attention that today we associate only with major royalty or the biggest Hollywood stars. Aside from the younger Dumas, her conquests included a host of writers and artists, including the greatest pianist of the century, Franz Liszt, with whom she once hoped to elope. When she died Theophile Gautier, one of the most important Parisian writers of the day, penned an obituary fit for a princess. Indeed, he boldly claimed that she had been a princess, notwithstanding her peasant origin and her distinctly demi-monde existence.
And although now largely forgotten, in the years immediately after her death, Marie's legend if anything grew in stature, with her immortalization in Verdi's La traviata, an opera in which the great Romantic composer tried to capture her essence in some of the most heart-wrenching and lyrical music ever composed.
Rene Weis, Professor of English, UCL
Rene Weis is a freelance author and a professor of English at UCL. He has a written on a wide variety of subjects, including Edith Thompson (of the infamous 'Thompson and Bywaters' murder case in the 1920s), the last Cathar insurgency in the Pyrenees in the Middle Ages, and a biography of Shakespeare. As a professional Shakespearian, he has published extensively on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, his publications including editions of Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Henry IV Part 2, and an Oxford World Classics edition of the works of John Webster. A lifelong lover of opera, he also contributes regular pieces to the programmes for Royal Opera House productions.