February 8, 2015

Salome and Violetta: Tough beginnings, bleak endings

Marie Duplessis: potato-lover
Since the current seasons of Virginia Opera ends with Strauss's Salome and Verdi's La Traviata, this post will be a "compare and contrast" exercise about the two leading ladies. However, since Violetta Valery is an idealized portrait of Verdi's real subject, the courtesan Marie Duplessis, let's go straight to the source observe the similarities between Marie and the daughter of Herodias. (And yes, Salome is also a highly fictionalized version of an actual person, but our knowledge of the "real" Salome is so scant we don't even know her real name. "Salome", which is a Westernized version of the Hebrew word "shalom", showed up in later re-tellings. My notes on her life will draw on the Wilde play that, abridged and translated, became Strauss's libretto.)

By the way, my information about Duplessis comes from Julie Kavanagh's full-length biography The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. For lovers of the Verdi opera, I recommend it highly.

1. Sexual attitudes influenced by troubles at home.
Salome (painting by Bernardino Luini)
Marie, who was born Alphonsine Plessis, was the product of a mother from a good family and a roustabout, roughneck father, one Marin Plessis. Marin was a neighborhood troublemaker in their town, and abusive to Marie. In fear for her life, she fled, leaving behind two daughters. Alphonsine was alternately neglected and abused by Marin. At one point, hoping to make her someone else's problem, he essentially pimped her out to an elderly man in need of a girl to cook and clean, as well as to be subjected to whatever remained of his sexuality. When that arrangement ran its course, the girl returned to Dad, where it appears incestuous experiences awaited her, rumors of indecent cohabitation that drew the attention of local police. Marin eventually deposited her in Paris, where she made her own way and found a new life; a life in which she would continue to attract the
attentions of elderly men.

Salome also came from a broken home; Herodias having divorced Herod Philip I, her daughter's biological father. Once in residence at the court of her stepfather Herod Antipas, she found herself in an environment of rampant sexuality where everyone, down to the palace guards, were devoted to gratification of the self. Worst of all, Antipas made no effort to conceal his lust for the girl. That Salome died a virgin is a mere technicality; once Jochanaan awakened her own sexuality, she was consumed by it.

2. Lesson learned: men will give you stuff.
We know that, upon arriving in Paris, Marie was penniless and hungry. Nestor Roqueplat, a writer, theatrical director and general man-about-town, observed the waif watching potatoes frying at a street kiosk. He asked her if she would like some, and bought her a bag. From then on, her life was devoted to trading on her looks so that wealthy men would provide the things she wanted.

Salome, whose life we observe for less than a day, nonetheless proves adept at getting what she wants from men by manipulating them sexually. Early on, when Narraboth declines to produce Jochanaan for her to inspect, she tells him that if he does what she's asking, she will look at him through her musin veil and, just perhaps, smile at him. And of course, Herod offers her a long list of gifts, including wine, food, jewelry and half of his kingdom. Knowing she has total control over him, Salome obtains the thing she wants: John's severed head. For her, you see, that's a real luxury.

3. When those who care about us tell the truth, you tune them out.
During her short but brilliant career as the most glamorous courtesan in Paris, Marie encountered men who were concerned with her welfare and tried to reason with her. Alexandre Dumas fils, her affair de coeur who wrote La dame aux camellias, worried about all prostitutes and their place in society (years later, he wrote a tract on the subject in which he actually invented the term "feminist") and Marie in particular. As does Alfredo in the opera, Dumas attempted to lead Marie to a normal life. She found, however, that she missed both luxury and sex. They broke up. She had a platonic friend, the writer Romaine Vienne, who served as a confidante. On more than one occasion he attempted to persuade her to consider her future; to make plans for the day when her looks would fade; to lead a responsible, less frivolous life. (In Traviata, it is the elder Germont who warns her of a bleak future when she is no longer young.)  Invariably, Marie would acknowledge that he was right, and then choose to ignore him completely. She was dead by 23.

Though he was far from a confidante, Salome got some unsolicited advice from Jochanaan. He counseled her to turn away from her sin; to find Jesus of Nazareth; to seek forgiveness for the sake of her soul. He might as well have been speaking in Mandarin Chinese. At one point, when the prophet advises her to seek the Son of Man, she asks, incredulously, "Why? Is he more beautiful than you?" In her final crazed delirium, she speaks of "strange music" when in his presence; I take that to mean her inability to relate to his spiritual messages. She was dead by morning.

Two young women caught by bad choices just at the onset of adulthood, blessed with rare qualities of charisma and beauty, but doomed by childhood stresses and the drive of self-gratification.

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