It is not too difficult to stage Verdi’s ever-popular tear-jerker “La Traviata.” Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto and stage directions are so detailed any director with access to a few lengths of velvet and some stock chandeliers can create a plausible mis-en-scène to serve Verdi’s marvelous, emotive music.
French director Jean-François Sivadier, whose operatic resumé is shorter than a Rossini semiquaver, managed to turn the glamorous demi-monde divertissements of 19th century Paris into a tawdry contemporary street-life setting much closer to La Goutte d’Or than the Avenue Foch. This co-production from 2011 with the adventurous Festival of Aix-en-Provence and the illustrious Wiener Staatsoper seems to have made a bad bargain in replacing the previous picture-postcard staging by Otto Schenk which was first seen in 1971.
Forget Verdi & Piave
Alexandre de Dardel’s bare stage was drab and utterly charmless. A few chairs scattered around is a long way from Napoleon III opulence. There were several small painted screens of clouds more suitable to a commedia dell’arte side-show which appeared with irritatingly regularity despite the fact that all the scenes are indoors. The consistent absence of props also made Violetta’s financial decline into abject poverty visually unnoticeable. Piave and Dumas intended to create a stark contrast between the gilded grandeur of the dazzling salon in the first Act and miserable, furniture-bereft flat in Act three, but given the uniform scenic emptiness, this was impossible to convey. Actually both Violetta and Flora appear to be homeless and the party scenes take place in what could be empty car-parks. Beds are also in short supply and the idyllic love-nest in the countryside has only a shabby mattress on the floor. Violetta doesn’t even get a bed to die on but sits on a wooden chair chewing the fat with Annina. Violetta is supposed to have sold her possessions in Paris, not in the country but there is not even a desk for her to write her fateful letter to Alfredo. The villa is so magnificent even Germont remarks “Pur tanto lusso!” The note is scribbled on a scrap of paper balanced precariously on Violetta’s lap. Even Mariusz Treliński’s swimming pool setting in Warsaw was preferable.
In case the audience forgot which opera they were looking at, the words “Violetta Traviata” were daubed graffiti-like on a rear wall in the last Act. With the subtlety of one of Azucena’s anvils, the letters were slowly erased even before “Addio, del passato.” There was no cameo for Violettta to give Alfredo for his future bride during “Predi quest’è l’immagine” but instead a simple ring. Similarly, the camellia which she gives to her eager young admirer in Act one looked more like a withering dandelion. For some reason, Alfredo’s smart cream suit jacket became an idée fixe with Violetta wearing it in Act two, then giving it to père Germont before it somehow turns up again on the floor of the death scene. Sivadier was formerly a stage comedian but there was nothing even vaguely amusing about the Coro di Zingarelle and Mattadori Spagnuoli chez Flora. A line-dance of seedy hoofers was all he could come up with. Boris Nebyla’s choreography was similarly uninspired.
Sivadier seems to believe his own dramatic sense is superior to that of Piave or Verdi and changed several notable entries. Alfredo is seen staggering around at Flora’s soirée drunk as a skunk from the outset, which makes no sense when the other guests greet him with “Alfredo, voi” 53 partitura pages after he has been on stage. Similarly, père Germont wanders in to the party like a self-conscious gate-crasher a long time before his outraged “Di sprezzo degno sé stesso rende!” This is normally a powerful coup de théâtre with the furious father making a highly dramatic entrance “con dignitoso fuoco” accompanied by crashing cymbals, but not even Plácido Domingo’s presence could lift the scene from being excruciatingly banal. Even before the poignant short Preludio began, a rag-bag collection of shifty street people wandered aimlessly about the curtain-less stage greeting each other as if about to go clubbing when the free booze ran out. The sight of Dr Grenvil reading “Le Monde” was yet another incongruity as was Alfredo’s debonair hand-kissing. In such a modern mis-en-scène, a high-five would probably have been more appropriate. In her last moments, Violetta tells Grenvil that “religione è sollievo ai sofferenti” but there isn’t a crucifix anywhere to be seen.
In terms of characterization, Sivadier sees Violetta as little more than a raving alcoholic and doomed cocaine addict. In fact she looked a bit like Amy Winehouse on a bad day – or perhaps on a good one. The genuine sympathy Verdi felt for this fallen woman trapped in “questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi” was non-existent. Alfredo was a handsome, oversexed, goofy boy-toy also with a drinking problem. When Violetta goes back to the well-heeled Baron Douphol, the emulous lad from Provence makes violent drunken advances at Flora instead. Giorgio Germont was more animated than usual but that was probably due to Plácido Domingo’s natural acting skills than any inspired direction. Gastone was more like a pimp cum drug dealer and Violetta’s regular benefactor a spivvy arriviste lacking any semblance of aristocratic disdain. Annina could have been the good-hearted Annie Johnson in “Imitation of Life.” It took a concerted effort for the singers and orchestra to rise above this ill-conceived, bargain-basement mis-en-scène, which at least from a musical point of view, was mostly successful.
Conductor Marco Armiliato tended to interpret forte as fortissimo but left plenty of space for the frequent fermate, especially by Violetta. The tricky synchronization between pit and chorus in “Si ridesta in ciel l’aura” and “Largo al quadrupede sir della festa” was tight and well-calibrated. First clarinet in “addio del passato”’ was rather strident but there was sensitive solo violin playing before “teneste la promessa.” The exposed ppp high strings adagio Preludio was infinitesimally sharp but the cellos statement of the “Amami, Alfredo” theme was much more lyrical. The opera’s concluding crashing B flat minor chords with pounding timpani were suitably shattering.
The comprimario roles were never more than competent although Dan Paul Dumitrescu sang Dr. Grenvil with assurance and gravitas. His low C natural on “poche ore” had impressive resonance. Bongiwe Nakani was a sympathetic Annina but dramatically bland.
The main interest in “La Traviata” is not usually Alfredo’s insufferable sanctimonious padre from Provence, but when Plácido Domingo is singing the role, things change. The acclaimed former tenor first sang Giorgio Germont at Das Haus am Ring two years ago but unlike other recent baritone roles such as Nabucco and Simon Boccanegra, the higher tessitura suits his present vocal range more comfortably. In a highly unusual display more common to the Met than the circumspect Wiener Staatsoper, his entry at “Madamigella Valéry?” was greeted with music stopping applause. This was a fine performance indeed and the masterful singer/actor did as well as he could with the regrettable régie. The top F on “al vincolo” in “Pura si come un angelo” and high G and E flats in “Di Provenza il mar” showed the resilient tenor timbre of his acclaimed Alfredo of the past, although the top D flat on “Dio mi guidò” at the end of the aria was much louder than the ppp as marked. Interestingly, the mid-stave E naturals on “sagrifizio” and “uditemi” had plenty of resonance. A high F fermata on “Ah, ferma” closing the scene was the famous tenor at his formidable best. Given his star status in this production, it was regrettable that the “No, non udrai rimproveri” cabaletta was cut, even if it is not the most inspired music in the score. Unsurprisingly Domingo was accorded such a tumult of cheers and applause during the solo calls, it was almost as if he had just sung Otello.
Another Success Story
Sporting a newly shorn short haircut, pin-up boy tenor Pavol Breslik was a convincing Alfredo but constrained by poor direction. The idea of swilling a bottle of vodka and arriving paralytic drunk at Flora’s soirée made him more like a nasty Nemorino than a passionate young man in an uncontrollably jealous rage. He is also one of the few tenors who can look good in a muscle-bulging singlet. Perhaps due to the presence of such a legendary Alfredo as Domingo, Breslik was slightly nervous at the outset and the Brindisi was more hesitant than heroic. “Un di felice, innante” was slightly labored and “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” neither spirited nor boiling. There could have been closer attention to the contrasting ppp dynamic markings on “dell’amor” but the top A flats were solid. The “oh mio rimorso” cabaletta was sung with a firm fioratura albeit subdued fire. Perhaps wisely, Breslik eschewed the optional high C at the end. “Ah, comprendo! basta, basta” finally showed more cajones. The E flat scale rising to a fortissimo top G in the concertante end to Act two was much more impressive. Whilst Breslik’s voice is not particularly large, his overall characterization was convincing and the Slovak’s boyish good looks were certainly enough to snare any jaded Jezebel, whether reformed or not.
When Direction Sabotages A Strong Lead
Despite the presence of Plácido Domingo, any “Traviata” will succeed or fail on the strength of the Violetta. Irina Lungu ticked all the boxes but paradoxically did not make a lasting impression. Due to Sivadier’s dilatory direction, the character failed to generate the sympathy Verdi and Piave intended. “Era felice troppo” for example was almost cursory and the wrenching “Amami, Alfredo, quant’io t’amo” seemed similarly off-hand as was “Qual figlia m’abbracciate, forte così sarò” earlier.
The F minor semiquavers at the beginning of “Ah, fors’è lui” were crisply detached as marked but dramatically detached as well. Lungu’s coloratura technique is reliable with solid top C naturals such as “ritrovi” and precise trills on “Ora son forte” in Act three, but the final top B flat in the Brindisi was swamped by the other raucous revelers. There was an extended fermata on “gioir” but the top D flat before the tempo change to allegro brillante in “Sempre libera” was metallic and the stratospheric E flat quickly relinquished. Runs and roulades were generally accurate, but there was a tendency to slide to lower notes and Lungu’s vibrato was frequently intrusive, especially in the first Act. There was a seemingly endless G natural fermata on the “Ah” proceeding an impassioned “Gran Dio! Morir si giovine” which was much more satisfactory. The Russian soprano reached her vocal peak in a splendid vibrato-free cantabile in “dite alla giovine” and the final pristine A natural to “Addio, del passato” was Tebaldi-pure.
The singers clearly tried to overcome the limitations of this insensitive and soulless production but ultimately, discerning “Traviata” fans were left as cold Germont’s conscience.