Becoming Violetta

a tale – and a review – of Amouage ‘Lyric Woman’.

When ordinary mortals contracted laryngitis in the rainy month of November, it was an everyday occurrence. When the reigning diva at Covent Garden contracted laryngitis four days before the premiere of the season’s much anticipated ‘La Traviata’, it was an unmitigated disaster. La Diva would be indisposed for a month. The demanding role of Violetta was quite out of the question.

So the director had no choice but to call in her understudy, a decision that did not make him happy as he looked at this young woman with her wild hair and her wilder eyes. Like her, he was young, brash, arrogant as all directors must be, imported at great expense from Vienna, where his extravagant production had received rave reviews.

There were rumors of this young woman with her crystalline soprano voice, a voice fully up to the challenge of Violetta. Rumor had it she sang in a metal band in her spare time, songs vastly different from the peerless flight of Verdi’s score. Her voice wasn’t the problem. Her looks – unorthodox though they were – could be amended with makeup, wigs, all the paraphernalia of theatrical illusion.

No – the problem was her attitude. She was the understudy, she knew every inflection, every note, every aspect of Violetta the Paris courtesan. What she didn’t know or couldn’t feel was Violetta’s fire, her ardor, that mad passion that fuelled her love for Alfredo and led her to denounce him, even as she knew her own death breathed its own cold fire down her neck. She needed to become the instrument, she needed to breathe, to feel, to be…Violetta.

Alfredo, a dishy Italian fresh off a sell-out smash at La Scala, was also at his wits’ end. The premiere was tomorrow, the world would be watching, and this young thing could not feel Violetta, could not color her breathtaking voice with her pain, her gaiety and lust for life.

“Very well,” sighed the director, “Once more…from
‘So take what the moment of pleasure will grant for there’s nothing, nothing but this…’
he beckoned to the pianist in the rehearsal hall, and again, from the top, Flora, Gaston, the Baron, Violetta and the entire chorus began to sing.

He would be slaughtered by the press in two days. He could taste it. Triumph in Vienna, disaster in London. If something were not done, he’d be doomed to amateur productions in Stoke-On-Trent. Or Linz.

“Signore…” Alfredo’s silky tenor stopped him on his way to lunch. “An idea…I have it. This young girl…she is too young, too green to know such things. She needs – an education, prestissimo. I think I know how…” Alfredo whispered his suggestion in the director’s ear.

He would not have even dared to think of such a thing. It would be costly, of course. It would also be a small, trifling price to pay to avoid Stoke-On-Trent or even Linz, and certain disaster.

Late the next afternoon, having stretched her vocal chords far beyond anything she could have guessed they could stand, the young soprano eyed her bare face in her makeup mirror. In the corner on a mannequin hung a breathtaking silk dress in a mouthwatering shade of burgundy, as rich and deep as a perfect Romanée Conti, waiting for its chance to glow onstage.

Violetta eluded her, just as she always had. She herself didn’t have that experience, that worldliness, that knowledge in her blood, the knowledge it took to wear a dress like that red dress, the wisdom of a nineteenth century Paris courtesan, who only loved to please and who lived for pleasures. This was a different time, this was a very different world. How could she know? Every note she knew, every nuance, every quavering breath, but Violetta herself she would never know, never feel, never be, and this was her moment, this was her time, this was her one chance to grab the world’s attention and show her brand of magic. She would fail, she could feel it in her bones.

La Diva could rest secure in her sickbed at the Savoy and know the unknown understudy had not supplanted her from her throne.

There was a knock on the door, and her dresser opened the door to a delivery boy from Harrods, who handed over a small package.

“For you, Ma’am. It didn’t come with a card, so far as I could see.”

One small, exquisitely gift-wrapped box. Inside, a bottle of perfume, as dark-red and beautiful as the silk dress on the mannequin, heavy and somehow ominous in her hand. It glowed in the lights from the makeup mirror like a secret, ruby treasure waiting to be discovered.

Like herself, she realized with a start. She opened the bottle. A rose, a rose of infinite darkness and limitless ethereal light and spice, she thought, and then she breathed deeper, as if she were about to touch that elusive F6 note hovering just above her range, just out of reach, and then, all the secrets of a Paris courtesan of two centuries ago flew from that dark red bottle and into the room, the secrets of spice and wit, of dark and light, the sweetness of true love and all of one life’s ephemeral pleasures filled the dressing room, filled her lungs, her heart, her very soul, and the ghost of Violetta was there beside her, playing hide and seek in the burgundy folds of an opulent silk dress. “I am here,” that ghost seemed to breathe, “and while I am, I shall help you to become what I was, what I should be, what so few have ever understood about such a woman as I.”

She had never known that perfume could be so evocative, that a scent could whisper such a story of both sacred and profane, of sacrifice and joy. This was the secret that eluded her these past four days of frantic rehearsal, this was her Violetta, her moment, her time.

When she arrived at the party, her hair in snaky, luminous curls and her shoulders gleaming pearls in the dress, she hit those notes with a crystal-pure tone so flawless, so happy, so utterly the soul of Violetta that the orchestra nearly stopped playing. The audience was astonished to hear it, the director flabbergasted to see such a transformation in such a short time, the chorus on the stage transfixed by the sound. This was not that quirky, gawky girl of a few hours before. This was Violetta in all her glory, singing

Flora, you darling! My friends, what a pleasure!’

As Alfredo stood waiting in the wings to enter, he turned to the director and sotto voce, he whispered: “A change, no? You are young and Austrian, you would not understand. A woman can do only so much to convince herself. For the rest, she needs a perfume.”

This was her moment, this was her time. And ever after, she never went on stage without it.

Notes for Amouage Lyric Woman: Bergamot, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger, Rose, Angelica, Jasmine, Ylang Ylang, Geranium, Orris, Oakmoss, Musk, Patchouli, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Tonka Bean, Frankincense.

Photo: Man Ray, Kiki de Montparnasse as ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1924)

All thanks to Olfactoria, who gave me the opportunity.