I saw La Traviata yesterday for the second time in three days, and I’d see it again if I could. Typically, the ultra-modern designer had imposed his ideas on the story and the staging, but he couldn’t change the glorious music, and the heart-breaking love story – so much more moving than Romeo and Juliet.
So Natalie Dessay was required to play Violetta as a heavy drinking tart, not the elegant refined courtesan the real Marie Plessis was. On the other hand, the power and the glory of Il Magnifico, the Russian bass-baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, lifted the angry, arrogant, interfering father, the in-advertent villain of the piece, to heights of nobility. There was hardly a woman in the audience or at the New York Met, from which this opera was beamed, who wouldn’t have flung herself at his feet, as the roar from the audience testified. And of course, he’s not just a glorious voice, but also a pretty face – named one of the world’s fifty most beautiful people in a People magazine poll.
But tart or not, Natalie Dessay reduced me to tears with the pathos and beauty of her singing and acting in this part. She looked as ravaged at the end as though she really was dying both of TB and a broken heart..
I hurried home and googled Greta Garbo playing the same role in the film ‘Camille’ in 1936. When I was a teenager, my stepmother asked me to go to a cinema matinee with her. I went from politeness to see this old film from her sentimental past.
I sat through the matinee with her, and she left to go home. I sat through the next showing, and finally the last showing that evening. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When I looked at it again yesterday I felt the same. Garbo, at the height of her beauty was utterly ravishing, and the young Robert Taylor was an arrestingly beautiful young man. Garbo played Violetta, or Marguerite, as she was called in this film, with infinite refinement, delicacy and tenderness. Her clothes were exquisite, and even her shoulders emerging from glorious confections of tulle and taffeta, were achingly beautiful. I don’t think there has been another cinema star as beautiful and refined as she was.
The interesting thing was that the real Marie Plessis was just as beautiful and refined. Brought up by an alcoholic father, begging on the streets at ten, sent to be a comfort woman at twelve to an old man, escaping to be a seamstress in Paris, she didn’t earn enough to live on, but found, in conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s notorious phrase, that she had a gold mine between her legs. By the age of sixteen she had taken up with the young nobleman who was the model for Alfredo in the opera, she had learned to read and write, to ride side-saddle, and acquire all the accomplishments she saw that other women had. She was a fast learner. And by then she had already become a celebrated courtesan.
The country idyll with her young nobleman was broken up by his father just as in the opera, which was based on Alexandre Dumas’ book ‘La Dame aux Camellias’, expensive camellias being her favourite flower.
She was eventually re-united with the young nobleman, and they married in England, though the marriage was invalid in France. But it gave her a title and respectability. The nobleman faded out of her life, but she continued her amazing career, having an affair with Liszt, who appears to have been the only man she ever really loved, and with Dumas who wrote her story. Her salon in Paris included some of the most eminent men of the age, including Honore de Balzac, Alfred de Musset and Theophile Gautier. And then she died at the age of twenty-three.
I’m humbled at what she achieved in such a short space of time, totally self-educated, never showing any sign of her appalling childhood, but personifying grace, beauty, “ a great deal of heart, and a great liveliness of spirit” according to her lover, Franz Liszt.. She conquered one of the mostly highly civilised societies in the world. What a woman. What a girl.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets.
When I was a single mother supporting two children on a tiny wage, tins of salmon were a staple in my cupboard. This recipe for fish cakes involves a tin of salmon or tinned herrings, mashed potato, an egg, and mixed dried herbs.
Boil and mash the potatoes with butter but only a dash of milk since you want them to be quite firm. Break up the salmon, or herrings in tomato sauce if you can get them, and mix them into the potatoes, including the tomato sauce. You need to work out the right balance of fish to potato, but I find one tin will make about eight round fishcakes. Add an egg to the potatoes and fish to bind them, plus lots of mixed herbs to taste, salt and pepper. Divide into fishcakes and roll in flour. Fry till both sides are nice and crisp and the inside hot. If you have any left over, they can be re-heated in the oven, and I often made a double quantity so there were plenty the next day. Serve with green vegetables or a salad, and make a tomato sauce with fried tomatoes, olive oil, and a touch of sugar if you feel like it.