Friday, May 20, 2016

Coming soon on TLC: Real Courtesans of Paris

No, not really, but below we have an excellent review by guest blogger Kristen Seikaly about the new book from Oxford University Press, The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis, by Rene Weis:

When asked to name operas based on historical figures, a long list would naturally appear before La traviata. René Weis strives to change this perception though through his book The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis. This biography examines the life of one of the most famous courtesans in 19th century France. She also inspired the novel and play La Dame aux camélias, which subsequently led to Verdi’s La traviata.

Told primarily in chronological order, this well-researched account gives a wealth of information about Marie Duplessis--arguably too much. The author takes his readers through Duplessis’ life from birth to death, and leaves out no gruesome detail. Starting with her impoverished childhood, Weis delicately lays the foundation of Duplessis’ tragic life. Although she began life with a different name, Duplessis began to use her body as her livelihood from an incredibly young age. Others shamed her for this while also taking advantage, including her own family.

As Duplessis grew older and into the courtesan immortalized by Verdi, she began to refine her skills. Her charm became just as valuable as her body, if not more so. This led to a higher class of client and more notoriety in Parisian society. Still, it only took her so far before she died of consumption (now known as tuberculosis) just shortly after she turned 23.

Weis then takes time to discuss the works that were inspired by the courtesan’s story. First, he discusses La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, who knew her intimately and was a main character throughout this biography. Then, a considerable amount of time is spent discussing Verdi, La traviata, and the opera’s initial reception.

At times this book is wonderfully narrative. When telling this sad story, the author often resembles a sort of historical tour guide. In these moments, the reader is able to explore the information given, and consider more deeply the effect the heroine’s life had on others (such as Liszt, who is confirmed as one of Duplessis’ lovers in the book). Other times, however, the biography gets bogged down by the weight of its own information. The author will find himself stuck in particular dates, factual inconsistencies, or side stories that have little to do with the heroine. As a result, the narrative flow is halted and it can be difficult to press on.

Still, it is refreshing to read a biography of someone who affected so much culture, yet is largely lost to the contemporary mind. It is also a pleasure to be invited into Weis’ passion for the subject matter at hand, even if it is not always easy for the reader to follow him on his quests for truth.

Readers who are preparing either to perform or to see La traviata as an audience member would enjoy this book. Furthermore, those who wish to study Ms. Duplessis, La traviata, French history, or any subject relating to this cultural figure would be well served by the history this book has to offer. As a work of research, The Real Traviata is second to none.

Ultimately, through this book, Weis strives to bring humanity and empathy back to the characters of opera through one heroine in particular. Far too many modern audiences feel that opera is too separate from life today. Perhaps modern audiences, reminded that some of the most famous operas are based on real people, can connect to operas in the same way they would movies or television programs. This possibility alone makes The Real Traviata a worthwhile read above all else.

Kristen Seikaly
Materials for this review were provided by the publisher. The views and opinions expressed here are completely those of the reviewer.

Kristen Seikaly is a freelance writer, singer, and voice teacher in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, she runs Operaversity, a website geared towards providing resources on opera for artists and audiences.

She tweets at @KristenSeikaly.

Readers! Don't forget you can get an attractive discount buying the book at the publisher web site using this code: AAFLYG6.

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