By Tara Werner
There is a very simple tombstone in Montmartre, just a slab with dates on it. But Parisians always place camellias on the grave: Marie Alphonsine Duplessis, The Lady of the Camellias, was a courtesan of great beauty.
Verdi based his most famous opera, La Traviata, on a play by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux Camelias. Like all great romantic stories, Dumas' plot was part-autobiographical.
He had a passionate love affair with Duplessis, the mistress of the elderly Count Strakelberg, who had installed her in a luxurious apartment. She was introduced to Dumas in 1844, and one day when she was entertaining in her apartment she began to cough blood.
It was Dumas' genuine concern that persuaded her to take him on as a lover, and during the ensuing year the relationship developed, somewhat stormily.
Although genuinely in love with Dumas, Duplessis chose not to give up her life of luxury or her other lovers (among them Musset and Liszt) to live with him.
Eventually Dumas tired of waiting and wrote her a vicious letter of farewell. The letter did not appear to cut much ice. Duplessis ignored it and continued her hedonistic lifestyle, going from spa to spa in a desperate attempt to regain her health.
But it was too late. She died of consumption back in her Paris apartment during the winter of 1847. She was just 23.
Upon hearing of Marie's death, Dumas took his grief out in writing his novel, and later a play based on the same sad plot.
For Giuseppe Verdi, however, Dumas' tale of tragic passion drew the composer like a magnet. Possibly the story's appeal lay in Verdi's own situation.
At the time it may have echoed his long-standing relationship with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, who lived with him in Paris during 1847 and who became his wife only in 1859.
Whatever the reason for the play's attraction, when Verdi received a commission from the opera house in Venice for a new opera, he immediately proposed the subject of La Dame aux Camelias to his librettist, Piave.
The two lovers, Violetta Valery and Alfredo Germont, must be among the best known in the entire operatic literature.
Alfredo is sung in Alan Smythe's outdoor spectacular at North Harbour Stadium by the American tenor Richard Troxell, who is under no illusions about the essentially pragmatic nature of his stage partner's character.
"Alfredo is young and in love for the first time. Violetta is not a wayward woman. She is very worldly-wise, and she is willing to give Alfredo up, even though it means a great deal of pain and sadness for her."
Violetta is performed by soprano Jean Glennon, who was last in Auckland to sing Lady Macbeth in the Opera New Zealand production of Macbeth. Her strong portrayal of that evil leading lady was underlined with a real sense of malice and mockery.
As a lyrico spinto, or dramatic soprano, Glennon has a voice ideally suited to the "great ladies" of Verdi, and she is all too aware of the manifold demands the composer asks of Violetta.
"It's an enormous role and a technical landmine. The music is very demanding and you have to be very flexible. I'm on stage for most of the opera, and it can be easy to be overly emotional," she says.
And like Troxell, Glennon has a clear perspective of Violetta's character.
"She's a complex, multi-layered personality. Even though she may be a high-class courtesan there is also a real purity to her. She really loves Alfredo, and giving him up so his family won't be tainted is a tremendous sacrifice. If she could have stayed with Alfredo she might have healed, but in the end there is nothing for her to hope for."
The reasons the opera continues to be popular are clear. While it is one of his more personal and intimate creations, Verdi's music is full of luscious melodies. Above all, the plot is strong, romantic and heart-felt.
La Traviata states unambiguously the nature of the heroine's poignant predicament. She is a courtesan with consumption who gives up everything for love, and the sake of her lover's name. She is cruelly rejected by him and finally dies in his arms, too late for both of them to achieve any lasting happiness.
What: La Traviata
Where: North Harbour Stadium
When: Friday February 25, 8.30pm
By Tara Werner