At some point last year, I decided that I wouldn’t watch or listen to another La Traviata for a long, long time. Within a short period of time, I had seen three productions (Jonathan Miller in Vancouver, Hugo de Ana in Verona, and the cinema broadcast of Richard Eyre from London), and I was frankly tired of the opera. The story seemed trite and romanticized, and the music not much better. However, a new Peter Konwitschny production from Graz seemed interesting and had gotten phenomenal reviews from a bunch of opera fans, who, like me, seemed sick of the ‘traditional’ Traviata. When I found the DVD at a great price, I caved, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a thought-provoking production, and is certainly worth seeing.
When I first saw the DVD cover, I was not particularly impressed: Violetta in a red cocktail dress, stark sets, cruel male-dominated society, blah blah blah – didn’t seem that different to the Willy Decker production from 2005. Despite the superficial similarities, the two productions could not be more different. To me, Decker’s production casts Violetta as a myth, the product of male fantasies. Thrust into a highly visible position (her red dress against the white walls), Violetta tries desperately to enjoy herself. However, that’s not possible – her happiness is only temporary, and her society quickly banishes and replaces her. Really, Decker’s interpretation of Violetta’s fall from grace isn’t much different from a more traditional production. Konwitschny’s production, on the other hand, takes a rather more pessimistic view. His production takes place in front of a series of curtains, representing society. Violetta’s red dress has the exact same pattern – unlike Decker’s more exposed, vivacious Violetta, Konwitschny makes it clear that his more jaded Violetta is very much integrated into society. This is a society that does not accept newcomers, and the chorus mercilessly taunts the outsider Alfredo. Violetta observes this cruelty, and chooses to take Alfredo’s side. During their act 1 duet, Alfredo starts pulling back the curtain, and Violetta is tantalized by this glimpse of another world.
By act 2, she has chosen to join Alfredo’s bourgeois world. Her character has been completely desexualized, and she wears what appears to be a lumberjack outfit (it’s not as bad as it sounds). However, the backdrop is still the same curtain. After Violetta’s encounter with Germont, the meaning becomes clear: Alfredo’s society is just as misogynistic and cruel as Violetta’s. The gambling scene has seemingly infinite layers of curtains – no matter what, every society can be just as cruel. As Alfredo insults Violetta in front of the assembled guests, he pulls down the curtains and the stage is covered in a mess of bodies and cloth. After the guests (and curtains) exit the stage before the final act, Violetta is left with nothing more than a pathetic little black curtain, which she clings onto during “Addio del passato”. In the final scene, that one remaining curtain pulls back, and Violetta walks into the darkness. It’s a rather difficult production to explain, but the whole concept is detailed and intelligent. Particularly thought-provoking is the direction of the chorus – in act 1, they are crude, drunk, and clearly enjoying watching the drama unfold before them. In act 2 scene 2, the lines blur between Violetta’s society and Alfredo’s society, and by the end, Alfredo, Germont, Annina, and the doctor are no different from the rest. Germont’s arrival in act 3 is through the audience, and he never goes onstage. Alfredo and the rest join him, and they abandon Violetta through the auditorium doors as she dies. The chorus/society is deliberately unpleasant, and also somewhat sickening to watch when you realize that we, the audience, are implicated as well – after all, we have been watching and enjoying the story as well.
This performance has been much criticized for its supposed disrespect of Verdi’s score. The performance was performed without intermission, and so any music that didn’t propel the plot forward was cut. In reality, it’s not that drastic – apart from the excision of the gypsy/matador choruses, the cuts are similar to those in a standard performance 50 years ago. Second verses are cut, as is Germont’s cabaletta. While I should feel a whole lot more offended at the cuts, I honestly can’t say I minded much – the cuts are made smoothly, and I never liked those two choruses anyways. The musical values are all at a high level anyways, so you never feel like the cuts are being made in concession to the cast or orchestra.
Marlis Petersen has my preferred voice type for Violetta – in the Moffo mode, she has a full, rather dark lyric voice with enough lightness to get through act 1. She is clearly a great musician, and it’s almost as if she learned the part exclusively from the score without listening to any other recordings of the opera. As a result, her interpretation is refreshing and unique, but always stays true to Verdi’s music. She gets through act 1 quite easily, but really shines in the later acts and has a large enough voice to sing “Alfredo, di questo core” curled up in the middle of the stage in the fetal position. Her “Addio del passato” is easily the best singing in the performance, and she ends the aria with no vibrato. It’s risky, but certainly effective and doesn’t come across as an ‘effect’. She’s also an attractive woman, and more importantly, a dedicated actress. It can’t be easy to play Violetta’s loss of dignity in such a raw way, with no pretty costumes to hide behind, but she does a very convincing job both physically and vocally.
It also can’t be easy to play Alfredo in this production – instead of the charming handsome young man, he’s portrayed as socially inept and emotionally volatile. He reacts in a very childish manner most of the time, and often comes across as pathetic rather than romantic. His primary solace is in reading, and he offers Violetta a book in act 1, which she reads with fascination. It’s unclear whether Violetta is genuinely in love with Alfredo, or whether she shares his romantic ideals. However, this is in no way a criticism of Giuseppe Varano’s singing or acting. Rather, it’s a testament to his skill in both that Alfredo’s character is delineated so clearly. His tone is quite dark, almost reminiscent of Kaufmann at times, although Varano’s voice is nowhere near as loud. Consistent with Konwitschny’s idea of the character, Varano never bawls and somehow vocally conveys Alfredo’s awkwardness without losing the line.
James Rutherford is a Wagnerian bass-baritone who has Sachs, Dutchman, Barak, and Jochanaan in his repertoire. As such, his Germont is a far cry from, say, Hvorostovsky’s elegant and sleek portrayal. Again, this is consistent with Konwitschny’s interpretation of the role. Germont is portrayed as a crude, abusive man, who brings his daughter along in act 2 with the express purpose of manipulating Violetta. Rutherford’s singing is loud and authoritative as expected, but surprisingly sings “Pura siccome un angelo” with excellent legato and subtle phrasing. Vocally and physically, his character turns out to be more sympathetic than he first appears. After a round of abusing both Violetta and his daughter, he is shocked and tries to intervene when Violetta tries to shoot herself, and ends up genuinely concerned for Violetta. It’s become popular to interpret Germont as a close-minded but fundamentally kind person, but this is definitely a valid take on the role.
Conductor Tecwyn Evans leads the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a way that complements the spare sets and costumes. Everything is quite quick, and the emphasis is on moving the plot forward. There’s less rubato than usual, and none of the usual bombastic playing at “Amami Alfredo”. However, it would be unfair to categorize the playing as simply ‘efficient’ – it never feels rushed, and the appropriate amount of time is taken in the right places. The chorus sings very well indeed, given the amount of stage action they receive. Overall, the production is stark and intelligent but also very moving, and there is an uncommon unity between director, conductor, and singers. Definitely a contrast from the usual Victorian lampshade productions, and very much worth seeing. Also worth noting that the production is being presented by ENO in London next February with a great cast – see it if you can!