Thursday, October 30, 2014

THE ROMANCE OF TRISTAN AND ISEULT
by Joseph Bédier



Duncan, John (1912) "Tristan and Isolt"
Next month, BLO presents the fully-staged Boston premiere of  composer Frank Martin's The Love Potion, November 1923 at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. A retelling of the Tristan and Isolt tale, The Love Potion is based on a 1900 version by Joseph Bédier. Here is the story of the ill-fated lovers, adapted from Edward Gallagher's introduction to his translation of Bédier's Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut, along with several well-known artistic interpretations through the ages chosen by Magda Romanska, Ph.D. and BLO Dramaturg. 


The Story
Tristan, the posthumous son of Rivalen, orphaned shortly after his birth when his mother, Blanchefleur, dies disconsolate because of the murder of her husband, is reared as the son of Rohalt, his father’s servant, to protect the youth from Rivalen’s enemies. Kidnapped by merchants, the young Tristan arrives in Cornwall, the realm of King Mark, Blanchefleur’s brother. It is only when Rohalt reveals their blood relationship to Mark that the king understands his inexplicable affection for the youth.


Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1867)
"Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion"
In response to Irish demands for a tribute long refused them by Mark, Tristan, in single combat with the giant Morholt, slays the Irish champion. Wounded by a poisoned sword, Tristan is set adrift on the sea, arrives by chance in Ireland, and is cared for and cured by the Morholt’s sister, the Irish queen, and his niece, Iseult. The hero later returns to Ireland, where he kills a dragon to win Iseult for his uncle, King Mark. Poisoned by the venom of this monster’s tongue, Tristan is again cured by these royal Irish women. On their voyage to Cornwall, Tristan and Iseult drink what they think is wine but what is, in fact, a love potion prepared by Iseult’s mother to ensure a mutual love between Mark and his bride. Aboard ship, unable to resist the effects of the philter, Tristan and Iseult consummate their love.

After Iseult’s marriage to the king, the eponymous lovers continue their clandestine affair. Several of Mark’s barons, jealous of Tristan because of the king’s high regard for him, denounce the lovers. They convince Mark to spy on the two during a clandestine rendezvous under a giant pine tree. The lovers become aware of the king’s presence, and in an ambiguous conversation Tristan and Iseult manage to convince the king, perched above them in the branches of the tree, of their innocence. Later, Mark sees proof of their guilt, when Tristan’s blood is discovered in flour strewn between his bed and the queen’s. Mark condemns them to death. But the lovers manage to escape into the forest, where the privations of a life in the wild, beyond civilizations, are obviated by their all-consuming passion. Mark discovers the lovers asleep and separated by chance by Tristan’s sword. The king takes this as a sign of their chaste innocence. The lovers then decide each for the sake of the other to seek a reconciliation with Mark, for they have both since abandoned their elevated societal roles – queen and knight. To prove her innocence, Iseult swears an expiatory oath and undergoes a judgment by red-hot iron in the presence of King Mark, King Arthur, and their knights.


Speed, Lancelot (1919) 
"Tristan and Isolt Drink the Love Potion"
A definitive separation proves difficult for the lovers, but the danger of staying in Cornwall is great, and Tristan eventually leaves. Following years of wandering and without any word from the queen, Tristan agrees to marry Iseult of the White Hands. Yet, on his wedding night, he does not consummate his marriage, for he realizes that he has betrayed both the queen and his new wife. He then makes a series of attempts to see the queen again, disguised first as a leper then as a madman. Any sustained reprise of their liaison proves impossible. In the end, fatally wounded yet again, as he had been earlier by the Morholt’s sword and the dragon’s tongue, Tristan sends for Iseult to cure him. She arrives, but too late. Tristan’s jealous wife tells him that the sail of the approaching ship is black, a signal that Iseult is not aboard. Tristan dies, thinking that the queen has abandoned him. Iseult finally does arrive, stretches out besides Tristan’s body, and dies in his arms.

Mark returns the bodies to Cornwall and has them buried on either side of a chapel. An indestructible plant grows up from Tristan’s tomb and plunges into Iseult’s, as a sign of their enduring union.
(xiv–xv)

Read more:
Bédier, Joseph. The Romance of Tristan and Iseut. Trans. Edward J. Gallagher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2013.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Students Love LA TRAVIATA


Hundreds of middle school, high school, and college students attended BLO's final dress rehearsal of La Traviata on Wednesday, October 8, and they have been sending some amazing feedback!


Violetta (Anya Matanovic) - Photo:
Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014
Anthony (11th grade) said, "I enjoyed Alfredo over everything else...His voice was on point."

Ella (high school student) noted, "...my favorite scene was definitely the death scene. The way that the white fabric was stretched out all over the stage really evoked thoughts of her life slipping away. All of the images, in fact, were evocative of the underlying themes of the work...I felt that even though it was set so long ago, the performers did a truly incredible job of keeping the ideas intended by Verdi back in 1853 accessible to the modern mind."
 
Scarla (high school student) wrote, "The very fact that the characters had no microphones, but possessed such volume of voice was amazing! I could not understand Italian, but body language told me a lot of what was happening."
 
Melissa (10th grade) raved, "Overall the opera was amazing, and if I could I would go watch it every day."
So would we, Melissa!



Cheers and thank you to all of the students, teachers, and parents who attended La Traviata. If you are a student or educator who is interested in FREE dress rehearsal passes, we encourage you to reach out to us at education@blo.org. BLO is proud to provide high-quality arts experiences and education opportunities to students across the greater Boston area and beyond. Join us!

 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC - VOICES FROM THE PAST

Now that we have the eloquent voices from BLO's La Traviata echoing in our ears, let's listen to some fascinating singing from the archives.

First Lilli Lehmann from 1906.  One of the most intriguing of artists, Lehmann, sang Wagner (she participated in the inaugural Bayreuth season in 1876), sang Norma and Mozart at the Met, and was an outstanding teacher.



The title says it all: "Dueling Divas" (1911).


Lucrezia Bori and John McCormack (1914).   


Tito Schipa (the sweetest of tenors).


And some more modern views.
    

   

Friday, October 17, 2014

LA TRAVIATA: A CONVERSATION WITH PROFESSOR DAVID ROSEN, FROM CORNELL UNIVERSITY

Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor at Emerson College, talks to Prof. David Rosen about Verdi’s La Traviata. Prof. Rosen is a world-renowned musicologist, a leading expert on Verdi, and Professor Emeritus of Music at Cornell University. Prof. Rosen was responsible for the critical edition of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (published in The Works of Giuseppe Verdi), and the Cambridge Music Handbook on the Requiem. He also co-authored a volume dedicated to the disposizione scenica of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Prof. Rosen discovered in the Paris Bibliothèque de l’Opéra a passage in Verdi’s manuscript score for Don Carlos which had had to be cut in order to ensure that the opera’s première would finish before midnight. Prof. Rosen was one of the first scholars to study the contemporary staging manuals (disposizioni sceniche or livrets de mise en scène) and other sources that help us reconstruct the visual aspects of 19th-century opera.


Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg
Prof. David Rosen


MR: Verdi’s wishes for a contemporary setting were vetoed by the management of La Fenice Theatre, which wanted more sumptuous costumes, and he was forced to set the opera “around 1700.”  Modern directors have taken Verdi’s wishes for contemporary setting to heart, staging many updated adaptations.  Can you tell us more about the setting of La Traviata?

DR: Of course, Verdi’s wishes for a “contemporary” setting can be interpreted in two ways: “contemporary” with the première (1853) or “contemporary” with whenever the opera is performed (for us, 2014).  For today’s audiences a setting of 1853 (and of course, “around 1700”) is historical, just as the 15th-century setting of Il Trovatore is historical.  Productions with 20th- or 21st-century settings—where Violetta is more likely to suffer from AIDS than TB—are legitimate of course, but the music of Traviata is unusually attuned to a particular setting: mid-19th-century Paris.  In the opening scene of Rigoletto, set in the 16th-century court of Mantua, the Duke’s musicians play 18th-century dances—a minuet (reminiscent of the one in Don Giovanni) and a perigordino.  Historical accuracy counts for little: it is enough that the music comes across as old-fashioned.  However, in La Traviata, unusually, the music does match the setting—Paris in the second half of the 19th century.  In the opening scene the band plays a waltz—labeled Valzer in early printed piano-vocal scores, though not in Verdi’s autograph score.  Much of the music in the opera is in triple meter or subdivides the beat into three, which may suggest a waltz.  The waltz enjoyed an enormous vogue in Paris at the time—recall that Marie Duplessis, the real-life model for Violetta, was known as a skilled dancer of the waltz, and that in Dumas fils’ novel, Marguerite (Violetta) attempts to play Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz on the piano.  The fake Gypsy fortune-tellers and especially the fake matadors at Flora’s party well reflect the Parisian vogue for Spanish dance initiated by Fanny Elssler’s performance of the cachucha in 1836.  Another example of the connection between mid-19th-century Paris and the ambiance of the opera is the boisterous, vulgar off-stage Baccanale of the fatted ox—referencing a Parisian tradition during Carnival season—directly following Violetta’s plaintive aria “Addio del passato.”  This may serve as an ironic substitute for the (expected?) cabaletta that Violetta is too weak to sing.

MR: After the March 6, 1853, première, which wasn’t very successful, Verdi retouched the score for the second performance, on May 6, 1854.  The opera also went through many changes, forced by the current censorship, particularly in reference to Violetta’s profession.  Can you tell us about these different versions? How did the censorship affect La Traviata?  

DR: Partly because of self-censorship (Violetta’s profession is never explicitly stated), there do not seem to have been problems with the censors regarding the première in Venice.  The problems started when the opera went on the road, especially in the South, where the censorship was more stringent.  The censors in both Naples and Rome turned Violetta into a virtuous orphan girl with a fondness for parties, forcing them to invent a reason why she and Alfredo can’t marry.  The Roman censors’ solution: Germont had already promised Alfredo to another girl (whom he duly marries, but she conveniently dies in time for Alfredo to return to the dying Violetta).  One usually depicts the censors as denying the public access to ideas and information that it desired, but in this case, judging from contemporary criticism, the censors’ views have been shared by part of the public.  For example, Abramo Basevi begins the chapter on La Traviata in his 1859 Studio sulle opere di Giuseppe Verdi with a tirade about “the immorality of today’s [French] literature.”  Hugo had shown “the courtesan purified and made noble by love,” and Balzac, Dumas, Gautier, and many others expressed the same contemptible views, as did, of course, La Dame aux Camélias, Basevi’s principal target.

MR: The 19th century was particularly fascinated by the sickness and death of beautiful women. As Poe put it: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”  Violetta’s death captured some of that spirit of the time; however, it was also very specific.  Can you tell us how the ending, particularly Violetta’s death, functions musically and dramatically?

DR: La Traviata is apparently the first opera in which a character dies of a specific disease, here consumption or tuberculosis.  In Italian opera it would be another 40 years before the disease would strike again, in Leoncavallo’s I Medici (1894) and his and Puccini’s Bohèmes two years later.  The cause of the disease—the tubercule bacillus—and its contagious nature were discovered only in 1882.  In mid-century the disease was partly attributed to heredity, but it could be exacerbated or, in some accounts, even brought about by an unhealthy lifestyle, including alcohol and especially, as an 1852 medical treatise warns, “the unnatural or unrestrained indulgence of the sensual passions.”  And so Violetta unites both discourses: prostitution and consumption.

The most important strand in the discourse of consumption for the musical treatment is the spes phthistica, the dying person’s feeling of revival and well-being immediately before death.  In Verdi’s usual procedure for the end of an opera, the slow ensemble ends with the death of a principal character, followed by a fast minor-mode section with an additional action (e.g., Manrico’s execution in Il Trovatore) or a crucial verbal phrase (e.g., Rigoletto remembers “La maledizione”).  In La Traviata, Verdi grafts the spes phthistica upon this scheme: instead of dying at the end of the ensemble, Violetta suddenly rises, exclaiming that she is returning to life, as the love theme surges in the strings.  She cries “Oh gioia” and falls dead; the survivors express their grief in the fast minor-mode final section.  Something similar is found in the play by Alexandre Dumas fils on which the opera is based, La Dame aux Camélias, though not in his earlier novel of the same name.

MR: Speaking of Dumas’ play, what are some other major differences between Dumas’ story and Verdi’s version?

DR: As the psychologist Gerald Mendelsohn has noted, even though the events of opera follow the play closely, the moral stance of the play and that of the opera differ radically.  In the play, we are meant to believe that the father, representing society and bourgeois morality, is correct.  At the end Violetta is partially forgiven: “Much will be forgiven you, for you loved much”—but die she must.  But in the opera Germont returns at the end to repent: “Ah, ill-advised old man! / Only now do I see the harm I did!” And compare the music at the end of the two works (the play included copious incidental music).  In the preface to his play Dumas fils thanks the music director for having written music that “livened up the scene of the toast [the song corresponding to the opera’s brindisi] with a ronde that was vigorous, original, brash, and then with a skillfulness ripe with feeling, he had this joyous motif come back in the third act, at the moment of Marguerite’s death, like a persistent memory of a mad life drawing its last breath.”  Marguerite may be forgiven, but Violetta, vindicated, triumphs.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC: The Camellias Never Fade

When Sir Frederick Ashton's one-act ballet (set to the D minor piano sonata by Franz Liszt) Marguerite and Armand was premiered in 1963, it was the center of intense interest, not only from the ballet world, but also from the somewhat prurient curiosities of a celebrity culture. Could the plot of the ballet reflect the off-stage realities of the situation between Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn?..."Hot young (25) stud melts the older (44) frigid snow queen prima ballerina," etc., etc. By all accounts Fonteyn gave a performance of perhaps unaccustomed emotional ardor equaled in intensity by Nureyev's almost blatant sexuality, and the piece became a potent signature of their partnership. It was not performed for awhile after her death in 1991 (Nureyev died in 1993), but it has been recently revived with other dancers.

   

The familiar story was also translated into dance by John Neumeier for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978 as a full-length ballet using the music of Chopin. A significant version was produced for the Paris Opera Ballet with compelling performances by Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Bullion. The piece is not without its elements of kitsch and overblown and over-articulated emotion, but the love duets do work up considerable intensity and sexiness.

 


And then there is Camille and Greta Garbo. If somehow you have never seen it, seek it out. Robert Taylor takes some adjusting to, but Garbo is sublime.



Here is a bit of Sarah Bernhardt in the death scene (at 42 seconds on in the film clip).



Dimly lit, distant, often out of focus, questionable sound, but a least a rare peek at Callas on stage as Violetta (with Alfredo Kraus), Lisbon 1958.




And at last, a look at La Traviata in its place in the seemingly inevitable final repository and apotheosis of culture in this country - the ice show!



Friday, October 10, 2014

LA TRAVIATA—BACKGROUND STORY

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg



La Traviata, a melodrama in three acts, was set to a libretto by Verdi’s longtime collaborator Francesco Maria Piave and is based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ play, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias). The play itself was adapted from Dumas’ novel of the same title, which was published in the summer of 1848 by A. Cadot of Paris, when Verdi was in the city. The play was initially scheduled to open at the Théâtre Historique, where Dumas père worked as director, but the theatre experienced financial problems and eventually closed for good. In 1851, the second edition of Dumas’ novel was published, with an introduction by Jules Janin which revealed the true identity of the mysterious Lady of the Camellias. In the meantime, as the sensational story grew in popularity, the play was vetoed by the censors. Eventually, after the coup d’état, the production was given permission and the play premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris on February 2, 1852. It was an instant success, enjoying 100 consecutive performances. In May of 1852, it was performed in French at the Teatro Re in Milan, and the Italian version of the play was published in Milan shortly after. In 1853, while La Traviata was in rehearsals at La Fenice in Venice, Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias was playing at the Teatro Apollo in the same city. When La Traviata finally opened, the audience was already pretty familiar with the story, a fact widely noted by the local newspapers:

Because of the great fuss made by the Paris newspapers about it, and the countless performances it enjoyed at the Apollo, we believe that our readers will not only be familiar with the subject of the opera, but will know the play word by word. The subject is none other than La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas fils, adapted a little clumsily—as is customary with operatic plots—and transported back to the time of the great Louis in order to create an excuse for a little more grandeur and lustre in the stage decorations. (quoted in Sala 60–61)

Out of all of Dumas’ stories, the tale of the “Lady of the Camellias,” who eventually came to be known as Camille, turned out to be his most popular and most enduring, with 16 versions of the story staged on Broadway alone, and nearly 30 different film adaptations, including the two most well-known versions: the 1936 Camille, directed by George Cukor and starring Greta Garbo as the title character, and the 2001 Moulin Rouge!, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman. Even Erich Segal’s 1970s novel, Love Story (and the iconic movie based on the novel) is said to be modeled on Dumas’ story, with the class difference between the two lovers and the sickness and death of the female protagonist framing the melodramatic plot.


Dumas’ heroine, Marguerite Gautier, was actually based on the real-life Marie Duplessis (1824–47), his lover and a popular French courtesan and salon hostess. A known mistress to a number of prominent men of her era, Marie died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 23, leaving behind one of the most enticing myths of her epoch. The story goes that although she was born a peasant, Duplessis managed to climb the ladder of Parisian society from laundry girl to one of Paris’ most celebrated courtesans thanks to her wits and striking, ethereal beauty. She was tall and pale with dark hair and “lips redder than cherries”- Dumas wrote, she looked “like a little figurine made of Dresden china” (quoted in Kavanagh). She was reportedly smart, pragmatic, and widely admired, and her salons were attended by the likes of Franz Liszt, Honoré de Balzac, Alfred de Musset, and Théophile Gautier. While conducting an affair with young Dumas, Marie was supported by an octogenarian, Count Stackelberg, and pretended to be his daughter. Dumas is said to have been forced to sneak around, hiding from Stackelberg, as he himself was too young to be able to support Marie and her extravagant household. It is unclear whether Dumas based the fictional character of Marie’s lover, Armand Duval, on himself or on Count Edouard de Perregaux, who was so in love with her that, in 1846, he married her against the wishes of his family. At the end, as she was dying of tuberculosis, Marie – abandoned by her lovers and cared for only by her faithful maid Clothilde – died while a horde of creditors were knocking on her door. When Marie died, her possessions were auctioned off to pay her debts, an event which the journalists of the times treated at length, one of them writing sensationally: “All of Paris was crowding to the sale of a lady of the demi-monde, Marie Duplessis, who had led the most brilliant and abandoned of lives, and left behind her the most exquisite furniture, and the most voluptuous and sumptuous bijouterie” (Sutherland 1893: 131). On March 6, 1847, L’Illustration featured an elaborate description of the sold objects “that awoke curiosity, if not the greed, of the holiest and chastest of women” (Sala 63).

The legend goes that Marie loved camellias. In 1886, Henry Sutherland Edwards wrote: “Little did the Jesuit Camelli, when he brought from Japan the flower which was to bear a name derived from his own; little did he think of what class of women this flower—Camellia Parisiana—would one day become the recognized symbol. It is without fragrance; for which reason, in its outward and inward significance, it was habitually worn by the fair one without reputation to whom the name of La Dame aux Camélias was so appropriately given” (212). Although she foremost loved white camellias, Marie is said to have worn a red one during her time of the month to indicate to her lovers that she was unavailable. Thanks to all the stories circulating about Marie and her flowers, the camellia gained a special mystique. Elegant, simple, and enigmatic, in the early 20th century, the camellia was adopted by Coco Chanel as a symbol of the fashion house’s haute couture. Since then, the flower has become a staple of wardrobes around the world.

Dumas’ novel was published shortly after Marie’s death, and the play premiered four years later, on the wave of the increasingly titillating story. Verdi and Piave adapted Dumas’ play in record time while Verdi was still working on Il Trovatore. Although he would typically take four months to compose an opera, Verdi took just four weeks to compose La Traviata. The original working title for the opera was Amore e Morte (Love and Death), but it was changed at the request of censors. Verdi was very much taken with the tale, considering it “a subject of the times,” as he wrote to his friend Cesare De Sanctis (Fisher 2007: 17). La Traviata premiered in Venice, at Teatro La Fenice, on March 6, 1853, with a cast that included Fanny Salvini Donatelli (Violetta), Ludovico Graziani (Alfredo), and Felise Varesi (Giorgio Germont). The first staging received mixed reviews, prompting Verdi to write to his friend Emanuelle Muzio, "La Traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers? Time will tell." Time did tell. The second staging, on May 6 of the following year, with a different cast and revised score, was an instant success.

First image: Marie Duplessis, painted by Édouard Viénot. Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection. Second image: Watercolor of Marie Duplessis at the theatre, by Camille Roqueplan. Third image: Poster by Alfons Mucha (1896) for the production of La Dame aux Camélias with Sarah Bernhardt.

Read more:

Cross, Milton. Complete Stories of the Great Operas. 1st ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1947. Print.

Dumas, Alexandre. Camille: or, The Fate of a Coquette. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson & Brothers, 1880. Print.

Edwards, Henry Sutherland. Famous First Representations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1886. Print.

Fisher, Burton D. Verdi's la Traviata: Opera Classics Library Series. Opera Journeys Publishing, 2007. Print and on-line.

Martin, George Whitney. Verdi: His Music, Life and Times. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963. Print.

Old and New Paris: Its History, Its People, and Its Places, Volumes 1-2. London: Cassel and Company Limited, 1893. Print.

Parker, Roger. The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Remarks on the Morality of Dramatic Compositions, with Particular Reference to “La Traviata,” etc. London: J. Chapman, 1856. Print.

Roberts, Nickie. Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society. London: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Sala, Emilio. The Sounds of Paris in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”  Trans. Delia Casadei. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC's Clouded Crystal Ball Department

As we get ready for tomorrow's Opening Night, take a look back in time at a review of La Traviata's Boston premiere. Who would have predicted it would become one of the world's most popular operas?

The recent compositions of Mr. Verdi afford a remarkable example of what might be called the "Art of Sinking in Music." Each of the last four or five operas he has given to the world has been considered inferior to that immediately preceding it, and it now becomes a matter for anxious consideration what we are to expect in his next lyrical production, should he continue in this manner. It can hardly be anything better than a series of brilliant and somewhat noisy quadrilles, polkas, and waltzes, for ponderous orchestra, with weak vocal accompaniments. Indeed, while listening to the Traviata one's first thought is - what a beautiful writer of quadrilles was lost to the world when Mr. Verdi devoted himself to the manufacture of operas. That the Traviata is more deficient in science and imagination than anything he has previously written cannot be denied.

The Courier. June 1857.

LA TRAVIATA — BEAUTIFUL DEATH

by Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg



“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

—Edgar Allan Poe, “Philosophy of Composition,” 
originally appeared in Graham’s Magazine, published in Philadelphia, in April 1846

The 19th-century affair with death is no great news to anyone even remotely familiar with its art or literature. It was a period of morbid aesthetics and a peculiar and apparently inexplicable fascination with deadly eroticism. The poetic and artistic imagination of the time began conceiving of the erotic as invariably “touched by death,” and of death as invariably touched by the erotic. In this climate, the beautiful dead or dying woman became a site where Eros and Thanatos could come together and speak the same language through the image of her body, ambivalently wrought either by death or by orgasm: “Dying could confer just as much glamour as did death. In a Barbey d’Aurevilly of the 1830s, the mere touch of a moribound heroine’s feeble, feverish hand set a hero’s bone marrow tingling” (Binion 8). Lawrence Kramer notes that:

[D]ead and dying women were notoriously seductive for nineteenth-century men. The bodies of such women, imaginary ones anyway, were felt to combine the pliancy of flesh with the perfection of a sculpture, making the death of women at once a form of art and form of sex. (194)

Every 19th-century household with aspirations to cultural elitism considered it imperative to own and display a portrait of a dying girl. The bourgeoisie as well as the aristocracy were, “eager to pay large sums of money to acquire images of women in stages of abject physical degeneration, painted by the highest-paid artists of the day,” (Dijkstra 28). Fuseli’s 1821 painting entitled "A Sleeping Woman and the Furies," depicting a semi-naked woman limply bent over and frozen in either a post-orgasmic or post-mortal dream, is one of the best examples of the trend. So also are Delacroix’s 1827 painting "Odalisque Reclining on a Divan" and Clesinger’s 1847 sculpture "Woman Bitten by a Snake," which depict similarly limp female bodies, seemingly dead, yet sexually inviting. In the visual culture of the moment, the eroticization of the dead female body and vice versa, the fashioning of the female body into a corpse for erotic appeal, became a matter of current fashion.

No wonder then that, “in an environment which valued self-negation as the principal evidence of woman’s ‘moral value,’ women enveloped by illness were the visual equivalents of spiritual purity,” (Dijkstra 27–8). “The apotheosis of this self-negation was death, a kind of triumph of virtue through fragility” (Fraser 245). By killing herself, or by dying slowly from a picturesquely degenerative illness, woman was giving the ultimate proof of her devotion to the male ideal. A perfect “lady” was “refined,” and her refinement was a mixture of physical and mental vulnerability: “A healthy woman, it was often thought, was likely to be an ‘unnatural’ woman. Proper human angels were weak, helpless,” (Dijkstra 26). Thus, pursuing the “natural” fragile feminine ideal through both behavior and outside appearance became a woman’s full-time job and her “first duty to society” (Steele 102). “It was at this time that we begin to have the image of the sighing, swooning female who often needed smelling salts to revive her,” (Russell 342). Practiced devotedly, the art of fainting entered the flirting repertoire of every self-respecting young society woman. By fainting gracefully, after all, she was not only able to reveal herself as a perfectly feeble and, thus, a cultivated, “saintly” woman, but also to present herself in the most erotic pose of the moment: limp, vulnerable, and unconscious—in other words, dead-like.

The aura of the mystic sublime became a condition of socioeconomic reality that structured 19th-century femininity. The idea of the sublime came to be separated from the idea of simple beauty beginning in 1764, with Kant’s essay on the sublime ("Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime"). If the beautiful was that which merely aroused aesthetic pleasure, the sublime was that which aroused transcendental feelings of greatness and exaltation (from Latin: sublimis—exalted). If initially the idea of the sublime referred to nature (breathtaking mountains or deserts), by the 19th century it began to refer to female beauty. Any woman could be beautiful, but only the one whose necro-beauty suggested otherworldly, transcendental purity could be called sublime. By the late 19th century, the female corpse, with its white, limp flesh, became the new erotic sublime of the époque. The tuberculotic woman’s morbid beauty, her translucent skin, and beautiful death became the standard by which all other “sublime” feminine beauty would be subsequently judged.

In the 1860s, a “sublime tubercular emaciation” became a desired model of femininity, generating the very first epidemic of anorexic starvation (Dijkstra 43). For example, in Arthur Hughes’s 1852 Ophelia painting, “[s]he is emaciated and tubercular and therefore has all the requisite attributes of the icons of illness. Consumptive fever has heightened the contrast between the pallor of her skin and her red lips and the deathlike shadows around her eyes” (Dijkstra 43). Thus, “around 1890 the Parisian cosmetics firm of Houbigant sought to create massive interest in its latest facial powder by calling it ‘Poudre Ophelia.’ The new product was widely advertised as a true ‘talisman of beauty.’ [It was said to create] at least the outward appearance of being as decorously pale and fragile as any true Ophelia,” (Dijkstra 46). Paleness became a sign of beauty because it was a sign of sickness and of impending death. A pale woman carried the omen of her demise on her face, and tubercular paleness was “sublime” partially on account of being touched by “her future death.”

For 19th-century opera, dying of tuberculosis was a particularly dramatic device. Both Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème and Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata die poetically of tuberculosis. For actresses of the era performing the part, it was often quite a challenge to live up to the expectations of these roles. In his 1891 review of the La Traviata performance by Emma Albani, the leading soprano of the 19th century, George Bernard Shaw wrote sarcastically of her not sufficiently tubercular figure that we should:

…feel abundantly grateful to Albani for having so trained herself that nobody can say anything worse of her than that she is pleasingly plump. Indeed, in one way her figure is just the thing for La Traviata, as it does away with the painful impression which the last act produces whether there is the faintest realism about. Even in the agonies of death Albani, robs the sick bed and the medicine bottles of half their terrors by her reassuring air of doing as well as can be expected. Still, I submit that though the representation is not painful, it is in the last degree ridiculous. In saying this I by no means endorse the verdict of those colleagues of mine who are declaring in all directions that the opera is antiquated, impossible, absurd, a relic of the old regime, and so on. Verdi’s opera is one thing: the willful folly of the Covent Garden parody of it is quite another. Take any drama ever written, and put it on a stage six times too large for its scenes, introducing the maddest incongruities of furniture, costume, and manners at every turn of it; and it will seem as nonsensical as La Traviata, even without the crowning burlesque of a robust, joyous, round-cheeked lady figuring as moribund patient in decline. (206)


Music sheet cover of La Traviata, printed by John Brandard, around 1860.



Read more:

Auerbach, N. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and the Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Print.

Bassein, B. A. Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. Print.

Bataille, G. Eroticism: Death & Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986. Print.

Binion, R. Love Beyond Death: The Anatomy of Myth in the Arts. New York: New York University Press, 1993. Print.

Bronfen, E. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Dijkstra, B. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Fraser, R. S. On Ophelia. Shakespeare Yearbook 11 (2000): 238–259.

Kramer, L. After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.

Russell, D. A. Costume History & Style. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.1983. Print.

Steele, V. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty From the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.