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la dame aux camélias

26 april 2015

Early in Dumas fils's Dame aux camélias, a copy of Prevost's Manon Lescaut plays a key part in getting the story told at all. The narrator finds the book at an estate sale and bids outrageously to keep it. It seems to have been a prized possession of Marguerite Gautier, the famous lady with the camellias who has lived and died lavishly like a latter-day Manon. The book brings the narrator into contact with Armand Duval, whose life has been tragically blighted by his relationship with Marguerite. In Armand's case, 'twould have been way better never to have loved at all.

Manon keeps resurfacing throughout. Armand's father explains that in the enlightened 19th century, solicitous fathers don't kidnap their wayward sons anymore. Later on, trying to forget Marguerite, Armand takes up a book: Manon Lescaut, natch, and that's not the best bedtime reading in such a situation. Even though La dame aux camélias is supposed to be a true story – events parallel to Armand's relationship with Marguerite seem to have happened, or sort of, to Alexandre Dumas and a woman named Marie Duplessis – it seems to have been a case of art imitating life imitating art.

But Duval père is correct: a lot changed in the century between Manon and Marguerite. The 18th-century courtesan was greedy and impulsive; Marguerite is sentimental and capable of true love. The lovers in Prevost's story continually run afoul of the law, and human life is cheap; the lovers in Dumas's get in trouble with nobody except debt collectors, and everybody is forgivingly non-violent all the time.

In fact everybody spends most of their time weeping or trembling or fainting away, or in Marguerite's case coughing. In the sentiment-suffused world of the non-Flaubert 19th-century French novel, you can barely have a passing feeling without shaking violently all over and feeling great hot tears course down your face. This goes for good and bad feelings alike. And Marguerite is as good as Manon is bad. Heart 'o gold doesn't begin to describe it: she only jilts her devoted lover so that he won't spend all his honest virgin sister's dowry hopes on her no-good whorish self. As Armand says,

Elle me disait toujours que lorsqu'une femme aime, elle ne peut pas faire ce que faisait Manon.

[She always told me that when a woman loves someone, she can't do the kinds of things Manon did.] (Chapter 17)
There are numerous dramatic versions of La dame aux camélias, but the most famous is Verdi's opera La Traviata, which I recently saw in Ft. Worth. A thrilling weekend of opera in Ft. Worth, I might add, where the opening night of the entire season was waylaid by a tornado. But the Traviata came off without a hitch, and was quite enjoyable, especially the powerful presence of Nicholas Pallesen as the father, redubbed Giorgio in the Italian libretto.

Verdi omits the entire frame of the story, and his Traviata shows rather than tells, as almost all dramatic works do. As a result, the focus is much less on Armand (renamed Alfredo) than on the Lady herself (here, Violetta) and her dramatic conflict with Giorgio, the father. In particular, one simplification Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave make is to show us why Violetta definitively leaves Alfredo. In Dumas' novel, even the jilting happens pretty late in the game, and we don't learn why Armand has been jilted till the epistolary denouement.

His father prevails on the traviata to save the family cash for the younger of his two children. ("Due figli!" exclaims Violetta, who had never heard about her sister-not-in-law, who remains an invisible plot device in both versions.) We see the scene in sequence, and it is a very good one, but it deliberately softens both the courtesan and her hapless lover, and makes the father somewhat sympathetic, too. Instead of miscommunication, and instead of Armand's limited perspective (or his choice to limit his perspective as he narrates post facto), we get a situation two degrees nicer than that of Manon Lescaut. By the cough-and-sing deathbed Act Four, the principal characters in La Traviata are just knocking themselves out to forgive one another for everything.

And they even get to have the reconciliation. Dumas's Armand does not. Even the Chevalier gets to witness Manon's death, but dumbbell Armand, still furious at Marguerite for her inexplicable treachery, is off in the Levant or somewhere while she's expiring. This apparently is Dumas's own touch, and borrowed from his real-life sorrows, as he did not get to see his Marie die. And it's a good choice, complicating the narrative and adding a bit of real-life contingency to the way we don't always get to have it all out before parting. Henry Murger would later use crossed wires to keep his lovers apart in the original of La Bohème; but Puccini would get them back together for yet another deathbed finale.

Dumas, Alexandre. La dame aux camélias. 1848. iBooks.

UPDATE 03.21.2017: Last week in New York I saw La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera with three world-class singers: Sonia Yoncheva as Violetta, Michael Fabiano as Alfredo, and Thomas Hampson as Germont. It was a musically exciting production vitiated a bit by a weird minimalist set. I don't mind minimalist opera at all – it usually helps focus the action – but this version was distracting. The big semicircular wall that hemmed in the singers looked frankly tatty. One relatively tiny door stage right was the only entrance and exit – meaning that the huge chorus had to squeeze through a bottleneck at key moments. Operatic choruses can tromp like a herd of elephants with the best of choreography, and this was some of the worst. To make matters direr, the cast was asked to double as stagehands; and since the minimal scenery consisted of half-a-dozen huge sofas, the logistic problem was exacerbated by trying to fit sofas and singers alike through the little bitty door. The chorus wore weird masks that seemed to facilitate their bumping into one another while carrying the sofas. Minimalism turned into frenetic traffic jams.

UPDATE 10.31.2017: October 2017 brought La Traviata to Dallas in a musically lovely production that showed a few stagecraft flaws. Tenor René Barbera, as Alfredo, had what the Dallas Morning News called "all the dramatic engagement of a Paddington Bear." But he was at least inobtrusive. For some reason, though, the director called for Violetta and Giorgio (Georgia Jarman and Vladislav Sulimsky) to play their crucial second-act scene in hot-and-heavy contact, far more erotic than Violetta and Paddington managed in the rest of the show. I didn't get it. The scene can be played subtly or at high emotional pitch; Giorgio can perhaps be played a bit cynically, maybe with some nostalgia for a lustful youth: but once he starts to paw Violetta, her reactions to him make no sense. This is la dame aux camélias, after all; she's been around the block. She might fall in love with Giorgio, seeing in him the father she never had, but if he comes across as David Cop-a-Feel, I think she'd show him the door.

But as an audience member sitting near me said at one of the intermissions, "I'm always comparing what I see to some ideal production in my own head, but I never get to see that one." I'm quite guilty of that. I should just enjoy the theater I do get to see.