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The opera festival season has drawn to a close. Author Eva Demski reflects on the sickly seductiveness of Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata", Dumas' figure Marguerite Gaultier who inspired her, and death, who pulls the strings.


The sweet horror of passion

What we can learn from the figures of Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" and Alexandre Dumas' Marguerite Gaultier. By Eva Demski

There is one thing only opera can do. Of all the arts, opera alone can simplify the stories it tells us not by taking anything away but by adding things. Complications and incomprehensiveness are kept safe and sound in the score rather than the libretto. Music makes psychology completely superfluous, it lets the truth emerge, but through entirely different means. The music mercilessly reveals what we have lost, and makes us listen to our longings without being distracted. The science of the human soul – which today goes under the name of neurology – falls silent for at least three acts, while we get led astray with Violetta and finally follow her defenceless into death. Love knows no other end.

Who was the Lady of the Camellias, Marguerite Gaultier, Violetta? Do we still possess in our hearts the means to understand someone like her? "Neither mother, nor daughter, nor wife", as Alexandre Dumas condescendingly wrote, only to add we must not despise those like her either.

It has long been customary to tug around at old stories until we have dragged them kicking and screaming into our own times. It's normal to place them like templates over modern life and chop off all the bits that stick out. I shall spare the Lady of the Camellias that fate, the lady gone astray. I will leave "La Traviata" just as distant as she actually is. I can hardly imagine her in the male fantasies of today – above all because of the modern horror of illness. Violetta's candle burns at both ends. She knows that, and so do all around her. In the midst of festivities she sits alone on the magic mountain, for everyone to see. She is so visibly mortal. And just that lets her do anything she wants.

The fears of that age were too dignified and too grown-up to cling to delusions of youth and health. They were all mortal, the people who danced and reeled through the belle epoch. They knew it and they loved Violetta because she showed them it so clearly. Today she would not be caught up in the midst of things, but in a self-help group, condemned to the company of her own kind. The erotic sheen of sickness has long been supplanted by suntan and muscle. Morbidezza has no fans. But in the opera – there we can give ourselves over to that distant memory of death in the midst of life. Sweet horror of passion that will not be deterred by consumption's roses of death. Quite the contrary, it feeds on the lover's fever.

Violetta is irresistible not because she is a courtesan, but because she is sick. That's what gives her statement in the drinking song its nihilism: "Everything is folly in this world / That does not give us pleasure". She stands out from her entourage of dandies, idlers and their girls, a white camellia, cynical, detached and therefore completely at the mercy of her first love. Before love came, death meant nothing to her. Where was its sting, where its victory? But now she haggles with death over every hour. She plays coquettishly on her loneliness, but she is entirely aware that that is what makes her what she is. The loneliness forced upon her by her sickness is what makes her so special. She is the decrepit horse-riding tubercular artist (Kafka) who can bring those of us sitting on the gallery to tears.

"And life for its part? Was it perhaps but an infectious disease of matter – just as that which we could call the ultimate origin of matter was perhaps merely a sickness, an irritable proliferation of the immaterial? Here was without doubt the very first step leading to evil, lust and death.... "

Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" takes us along all those tortuous paths that we can but guess at when we listen to "La Traviata".

Poor Hans Castorp thought illness was the obscene form of life. And he was right. Without knowing it, he suffers from the passion whose true origin he is unwilling to admit to himself.

We know that his icon will be the looking-glass in which he can see and worship Madame Chauchat's sick soul, her invisible part that he loves. The invisible is much more powerful than the visible, and Verdi's music shows us that powerfully. It is about love and sacrifice, tragedy and error, it is about all those beautiful opera catastrophes, and of course Violetta has sisters, Mimi, Manon, and so on, sisters in guilt and transfiguration.

But Violetta stands for the power of the invisible, and that is why we will never really be able to comprehend her story, we who have renounced the unseen.

The modern raises its head in a particularly frightful scene in Alexandre Dumas' novel. The decomposed corpse of Marguerite Gaultier is exhumed and identified. The invisible must be made visible come what may, the secret brought to light, things brought to an end. The opera has no need for this kind of truth. She remains strange to us, this "lonely woman in this densely populated desert they call Paris" who now must rethink her pact with death because love has taken hold of her. As strange as the age she lives in. No, it is not like our world, we cannot get inside her, this wonderfully tragic figure on the stage. We cannot make her ours. We have to come to terms with that.

The literary model is more predisposed to us helping ourselves, borrowing feelings, explanations, moral deliberations. Not possible in the opera. The music throws us back into our own emotions.

We have to imagine the interior, long since banished from the stage, the symphonies of plush and gold and glitter, long-lost rooms that nobody wants to show any more. But there is no where else for it but this sultry false splendour, this opera of love and death: "Sickness and death glow as cinders of / The great inferno that engulfed us / From these eyes that sparkle so tenderly / From these lips, which took away my heart." The stifling and overheated is also at the heart of Baudelaire's verses, which read like stage instructions: "The guilt-laden passion, the strangely peculiar festivities / With kisses where hell gleams within, / As a delight for the swarm of ill-famed guests, / Floating round the folds in the curtain".

Why should we not at least attempt to imagine that age's decorations of desires and fears? The black feather arrangements and artificial flowers, velvet curtains that stifle your breath, fake silver, plaster dressed as marble. Belief, already weakened, makes way for decadence. The light of the epoch is subdued. Country life, in an idealized and exaggerated contrast to the salons, stands for purity and forgiveness of sins.

And what kind of love is lived out there? With Dumas the business between the two lovers is a bit more complicated, ambiguous, in other words psychologically developed. In the opera a sick fallen woman casts off with a grand gesture all her cravings and dark passions (which, however, because she was never before touched by love, have still left her a degree of innocence) and gives herself with body and soul to a young man who is pretty much free of vices. That would be banal – opera plots are banal – and simply serve as a carpet for the magic of the music, if it were not for the role played by death. It is the role awarded it by the epoch, a tender, sensual role, "as if in love with easy death". Dying is opulent in the literature of those years, full of strange sensuality. Death is a liberator: from ennui, this all-encompassing weariness of life, self-abandonment in the abyss of nothingness, le gouffre. That, accentuated by the most literary of all ailments, tuberculosis, forms the temporal backdrop. Dancing on the edge of the abyss. As always, only love can brighten the gloomy scene.

The special thing about "La Traviata" is this clair-obscure element. The music lends the story precision and sharpness without any murmuring. Over the abyss spans an arch of the ordinary: betrayal, gambling, misunderstandings, vanity and superficiality – all these tones are clearly audible and they set the scene for the last act by showing us once again what life is. A party with many dark corners.

And now the parting. Who still remembers the sinner? Who is still keeping scores? Who is still apportioning blame? In the end it matters not who has Violetta on their conscience: the men, society, the mendacity of the age or none of these. There are no scores unsettled, only love demanding clarity. It is granted her. For death – with which they all flirted, the matadors, the duelling machos, the fortune tellers – is now getting down to business.

The opera is unjust to Dumas. Of course, unlike in his novel, love must have the penultimate word, the lovers' union is not withheld from us, and the music grants Violetta one last, glowing glimpse of life.

Do we care about her? Do we have the heart to understand her? Through three acts we must have been remembering things long forgotten. What shame is, for example. Because if you don't know that, you won't understand the story. Or reformation, the way through the darkness to the light, humble respect for the power of illness.

"The penitent's hope and the sinner's eternal chains / Heaven! Lid on the huge black pot, / In which humanity cooks, the whole wide world".

Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil", which grew in the era in which our drama is set transform into white camellias. After all, this is opera. It is there to deliver us, for an evening and evermore.


The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on August 28, 2005. See also our feature article "Straying from the path of virtue", a revue of Willy Decker's staging of "La Traviata" at the Salzburg Festival, starring Anna Netrebko.

Eva Demski is a prominent German author. Her latest book, "Von Liebe, Reichtum, Tod und Schminke" (On Love, Wealth, Death And Make-up), is published by Schöffling-Verlag. She lives in Frankfurt.

Translation: Meredith Dale. - let's talk european