Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022

© Drew Farrell

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Dr Grenvil in Verdi’s La Traviata

Just how good a doctor was he?

The excerpt which follows comes from Doctors in Opera: An Irreverent Look at Operatic Medicine by the Scottish doctor J. Ian S. Robertson. As he explains in the preface, the account of this, and the more than 40 operas considered in the book, is derived mainly from the author’s own “often very free” interpretation of the scores, libretti on the sources on which they are based and on other publications on the subject.

A physician in private practice might be expected to command some deference, both from patients and from the public. We encounter a person who initially appears to be just such a doctor in Verdi’s La Traviata of 1853, composed to a libretto by Piave after both a novel and a play by Alexandre Dumas fils, La Dame aux Camélias (sic: Dumas insisted on spelling the name of those flowers in that idiosyncratic fashion).

One of the most prevalent diseases of the 19th century for which then there was no cure was consumption pulmonary tuberculosis. Many a Victorian literary, dramatic, and operatic heroine died from that affliction. Violetta, the soprano courtesan of the Parisian demi-monde in La Traviata, is a typical sufferer. In the opera she is under the care of Dr Grenvil (bass).

By the time of the last act, Violetta is dying of consumption. She has lost her good looks and most of her fortune, and she is lying in her bed in a shabby apartment, attended only by her faithful maid. It is early morning. Dr Grenvil arrives to examine his patient. Dr Grenvil comforts Violetta, although he observes, and warns the maid, that she is deteriorating rapidly. He says he will return later in the day. Dr Grenvil does indeed return later, but despite his ministrations, Violetta dies.

It is possible at this point to pursue a little medical research. Another 19th-century Parisian operatic heroine, Mimi, dies from pulmonary tuberculosis, but in the absence of a doctor. In Puccini’s La Bohème the time taken for Mimi to die in the last act, in a recording conducted by Thomas Beecham wherein Mimi is sung by Victoria de los Angeles, is 19 minutes. In Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème, as conducted by Heinz Wallberg and with Mimi sung by Lucia Popp, the heroine lasts a mere 14 minutes. By contrast, in La Traviata, where a doctor is in attendance, the patient, Violetta, as sung for example by Ileana Cotrubas in a performance conducted by Carlos Kleiber, takes 25 minutes to die. So is demonstrated the beneficial therapeutic value of a doctor, even for a disease which was then devoid of effective drug treatment. This analytical approach is nowadays termed “evidence-based medicine”, a method with some fervent advocates. Hence Dr Grenvil can perhaps lay claim to a measure, albeit modest, of therapeutic effectiveness.

It remains necessary to explain the rather odd life that Dr Grenvil leads in the opera La Traviata. In Acts I and II, Dr Grenvil appears to be a physician in very lucrative private practice, since he seems able to afford to attend the expensive parties at which the courtesans entertain their aristocratic clients, or “protectors,” as those wealthy patrons were usually termed. Even so, in those first two acts Dr Grenvil’s actions are by no means professional, and include gambling and heavy drinking. And then, in Act III, we find this same Dr Grenvil plodding around the streets of Paris at seven o’clock in the morning doing his house calls, a circumstance seemingly at odds with what had earlier appeared as a highly remunerative private practice. The distinguished musicologist and critic Ernest Newman’s view of the matter was that Verdi had been obliged to engage the services of a bass singer to perform the role of Dr Grenvil in Act III. Thus saddled with that singer, Verdi thought that he might as well provide employment for him also in Acts I and II, and so in those first two acts Dr Grenvil is invited to various lavish, if louche, parties.

Newman’s explanation seems, however, to be wrong. In 2008, Scottish Opera staged a new production of La Traviata, directed by David McVicar, and the matter was gone into more carefully. In 2003, David McVicar had directed a play, Camille, by Neil Bartlett, concerning the same tale. The character Dr Grenvil is seemingly based on the activities of a real person, Dr Koreff, who is depicted in that play. Dr Koreff apparently did once obtain a genuine medical qualification. He practiced homeopathy and mesmerism, and attached himself to the Parisian demi-monde. According to one account (there are many inconsistencies), Dr Koreff was officially disbarred from medical practice for performing an illegal abortion, although he continued as a quack, and treated venereal disease in both the courtesans and their clients.

Despite the numerous uncertainties, this information concerning Dr Koreff does seem to provide a more likely explanation for the way Dr Grenvil is presented in Verdi’s opera.

Excerpted from Doctors in Opera: An Irreverent Look at Operatic Medicine by Dr J. Ian S. Robertson (Scottish Opera, 2012).

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