Arguably the most famous of all operas, La Traviata, which is currently playing at the Palais Garnier, has been one of the most enduringly popular pieces performed by the Opéra de Paris since the 1850s.
Which is not surprising when you learn that, despite its Italian name, La Traviata is at heart a very Parisian love story.
The opera is based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, the French literary classic about the tragically young death of a golden-hearted courtesan. The book was in turn based on the life of Marie Duplessis.
Even though Marie lived in Paris for less than a decade, she made a major impression on the city and its people. And even though much of the Paris she knew has gone, bulldozed by Baron Haussmann in the mid nineteenth century, you can still visit many locations that tell her story.
The oldest bridge in Paris was — before cars turned it into a thoroughfare — the social epicentre of Paris. Just as it linked both banks of Paris, it brought all classes together.
This is where Parisians from various walks of life came to buy posies or trinkets from the boutiques nestled into the semi-circular niches along the sides, read the news that was printed on posters, have their shoes shined or rotten teeth extracted, be entertained by jugglers and acrobats, and order roasted chestnuts or milky coffee from the makeshift stalls. It was here that sixteen-year-old Alphonsine Duplessis, having finally escaped her abusive father and wretched life in Normandy, found herself one day, sick with hunger and doubtless scared for her future. The editor and man-about-town Nestor Roqueplan spotted the beautiful waif and bought her a cone of fried potatoes. It was her first taste of the good life.
Head to the Louvre and then swing north to reach the Palais-Royal gardens. A place of tranquil loveliness these days, the park was a garden of hedonistic delights in the early nineteenth century, surrounded by arcades of cafés and boutiques, above which were gaming dens, dance rooms, billiard halls and brothels.
Alphonsine was soon working in this district as a seamstress, and used to party here with friends. A local restaurateur fell head over heels for this pale and poetic-looking beauty, and set her up in a nearby apartment. A kept woman, she could now afford to dress more elegantly, and socialise at a better class of venue. She was soon spotted by one of Paris’s most dashing dandies, the illegitimate son of Empress Joséphine’s daughter Hortense, who became her very own Pygmalion. Within a couple of years, Alphonsine was the chicest woman around, stylishly dressed in black and white which set off her luminous beauty. She was one of the most intelligent of Parisiennes, too, adept at discussing literature and politics and most else with the wittiest and wealthiest men of Paris.
Boulevard des Italiens
Exit the Palais-Royal at the northwest corner — note Le Grand Véfour, the fancy high-society restaurant Alphonsine would frequent after making herself over into ‘Marie.’ Turn left into Rue de Beaujolais and scoot up the rickety stairs ahead to reach Rue de Richelieu. Walk north, passing the pretty Square Louvois, by which Alphonsine had worked as a seamstress. Continue onwards, and swing left at no.97, into Passage des Princes, a sweet shopping arcade that will lead you to Boulevard des Italiens.
Sadly, this grand street is not a whisper of what it was in Alphonsine’s time, and it’s hard to sense any of its splendour amid the roar of cars. But in the 1840s, it was glamour central. Across the road was the old Passage de l’Opéra, which lead to one of the city’s main opera houses of the time, on the Rue Le Peletier, which would become a favourite haunt of Marie’s. She also hung out in the private rooms of the legendary cafés along here, with her growing fan base of Paris’s most powerful men. Cross over the boulevard and walk west. Café Riche was situated where BNB Paribas now is. On the next block you’ll see a gorgeously decorative building; this was home to the Maison Dorée. Next door was Café Tortoni and, a few steps on, the Café de Paris — although these two buildings have been demolished. Still, this strip remains one of Paris’s lieux de mémoire because here was where Parisian café culture began, with establishments spilling out onto the wide footpaths, which became the social stage of Paris, where you went to see and be seen. Under the glamorous glow of the new gaslit lamps, the night-time scene along here was electric.
Rue de la Paix
At Avénue de l’Opéra (look up right to see the Palais Garnier, where La Traviata regularly plays), cross and veer left into Rue de la Paix.
Since the early nineteenth century, this street has been one of Paris’s most vaunted — not to mention, most expensive. It was a favourite shopping address of Marie’s. She bought silver and gold trinkets from the jeweller Aucoc, then housed in no.6, and her famous camellias from Ragonot, at no.14. Sometimes she wore a single flower pinned modestly to her neckline, other times she fashioned the blooms into a whimsical crown. Many courtesans of the era adopted a signature flower; Duplessis chose the camellia, it’s said, because their lack of scent did not disrupt her delicate sensibilities.
Boulevard de La Madeleine
Turn right into Rue des Capucines and left at Boulevard de la Madeleine. At no.15, you’ll see a building where two curvaceous caryatids, at mezzanine level, hold up a black lacy balcony. They’re a latter-day tribute to the apartment’s most renowned resident.
Marie moved in here in 1844, when she was the city’s most celebrated and sought-after courtesan. After evenings at the theatre, or late dinners in the private salons of nearby cafés, she and her friends would pile back here, drawing the brocade curtains closed and igniting the chandelier — turquoise trimmed with porcelain flowers and birds — to party on amid the sumptuousness: the Louis XV furniture, vases of flowers, the sparkly bibelots. Her amour Franz Liszt was even known to provide some entertainment, taking to her treasured rosewood piano. So in demand was Marie that at one point she had seven official lovers, each allotted a night of the week, and entry into her satiny pink boudoir. For a time, Alexandre Dumas fils was a member of those hallowed ranks. He loved her beyond their relationship, as his book proves.
L’Église de la Madeleine
A block west, you can’t miss La Madeleine, the temple of a church dedicated Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of repentant sinners, and the woman who inspired a religious Alphonsine to change her name.
Wander towards it, following in Marie’s former dainty footsteps. Given the austerity of the exterior, you’re little prepared for the sumptuousness within — marble and gold that catch the heavenly light filtering through the domes above. Still, there’s a sombre quality to the soaring columns and ceilings, and it’s not a stretch to picture Marie sitting to the shadowy sides, on one of the little rush-seated chairs, her shawl wrapped around her frail body shivering in the stony chill, her heart hopefully finding comfort in the statue above the altar: Mary Magdalene, lifted in the ecstasy of prayer, encircled by angels. This is where she prayed, more frequently and fervently as time went on, even though it was not enough to save her from death from consumption at the heartbreakingly young age of 23. Her funeral was held here, her coffin covered in white camellias. Her cortège wound its way north to Montmartre Cemetery. If you feel like extending your pilgrimage, you can still find her marble and limestone grave here. It’s often adorned in tributes of, oui, camellias.