TraviataGiuseppe Verdi – La Traviata

Oper Graz, 2011 | Tecwyn Evans, Peter Konwitchny, Marlis Petersen, Giuseppe Varano, James Rutherford, Kristina Antonie Fehrs, Fran Lubahn, Taylan Memioglu, Ivan Oreščanin, David McShane, Konstantin Sfiris | Arthaus

There’s a tendency now for some producers, when confronted with some of the best-known and popular works, to strip them right back to the bone. In some cases, it can certainly be justified by the amount of fat that certain operas have gained through lazy convention, just rolled-out and played in a traditional staging with little thought for the relevance of their subjects to a modern audience. The assumption is undoubtedly that the public just want to hear the famous familiar arias and sob into their hankies at the end, and who is going to risk denying the audience that in an opera like La Traviata? Verdi’s opera, the only one he wrote with a contemporary subject (although even that was eventually denied him by the censor), is however one that could certainly withstand and perhaps even benefit from a fresh perspective, as Willy Decker’s production for Salzburg (now currently at the Met in New York) demonstrated. This somewhat minimally staged 2011 Oper Graz production by Peter Konwitchny certainly puts a different emphasis on the score and the drama, but does perhaps cut it back a little too much.

The case for this production, apart from the smaller nature of the venue, is one assumes that the storyline of La Traviata is now so familiar that it doesn’t need all the period accoutrements and props that are surely only a distraction from the brilliance of an opera – Verdi’s finest work up until his final four masterpieces – that is surely capable of standing purely on the strength of the singing and the music alone. It undoubtedly is and, with a few reservations, this performance is as good as any you’ll hear – one that even allows you to hear the emotions expressed in a fresh and genuinely touching human way, particularly if you are tired of the grand mannerisms of divas showing off their range and routines in a stuffy, period social setting of barons and courtesans. La Traviata is a brilliant work on that level, expressing the strength and the weakness of human sentiments on the subject of love. Surely, that’s what really counts? Well, perhaps not when you have so many other interpretations to choose from and with many classic performances of a great work already available. Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses, so what is gained from this production much will depend on one’s personal taste for singers and for modern, minimalist stagings.

Personally, I find Marlis Petersen, singing the role for the first time, wonderfully refreshing in the role of Violetta Valéry. Her principal Act 1 aria ‘Ah fors è lui’ and cabaletta are sung beautifully, purely and without mannerisms, sifting through the conflicting emotions of a woman who believed she was incapable of finding true love suddenly confronted with thrilling sensations when least expected, but cautious about the dangers of headlong abandon into the pleasures of loving and being loved. Her Act 3 ‘Addio del passato’, where she confronts the flipside of those emotions, the loss of love and the approach of death, is just as effective and affecting. A curtain, a chair, a fine singer – does Verdi and Piave’s work need anything more than this to bring it to life? Well, yes, it does perhaps need a little more than that, and it doesn’t always get it in this production.

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Going against more common interpretation, Giuseppe Varano’s Alfredo Germont isn’t the cocky young man or the impetuous hothead as seen recently on Blu-ray recordings featuring Ramón Vargas, Rolando Villazón or Joseph Calleja. Here, he’s a bespectacled nerd, a bookworm in a duffel coat, a shy, inexperienced romantic dreamer who seeks inspiration in his books of poetry. His voice isn’t as strong as the aforementioned tenors either, but, by the same token, the performance consequently loses all the operatic mannerisms and finds a way to express more realistically the inner nature of his character. James Rutherford sings well as Germont-père, but here he’s characterised as rough and abrasive, with little sympathy or understanding for Violetta’s plight when he asks her to give up Alfredo, even wheeling in his schoolgirl-aged daughter in person, beating her and manhandling her in order to blackmail Violetta’s feelings.

Such interpretations are valid and viable if they can be made to work, but not if they undermine or contradict the strengths of the original musical and lyrical intent. One would think that ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ ought to be more poignant for the presence of the girl in question, but it’s not, and Violetta’s capitulation of ‘Ah dite alla giovine!’ consequently doesn’t feel justified here. There should be a sense of paternal care for his children certainly that may make Germont blind and even inconsiderate to the suffering of others, but that’s not entirely how the libretto or the music depict his character. In order to make it work that way, you would need to mess with the score and make some judicious cuts, and unfortunately, that’s where this production is on rather dubious ground.

Cuts in even the most famous operas are not uncommon – even in La Traviata – but this production is particularly ruthless in wielding the knife in order to make it fit to a design that differs from the original intention. In some cases, the cuts are justifiable in focussing the drama back on Violetta and Alfredo and in moving the story along. We lose the gypsy dance and the matador chorus from the start of Act 2 entirely, just so we can get back to Alfredo’s confrontation with Violetta after the break-up. Personally, while the music is marvellous, I’ve always felt that this was rather out of place in the opera and did indeed bring the dramatic flow to a standstill (although Willy Decker did indeed manage to put an interesting spin on this section to integrate it back into the work), so it’s absence here is understandable if nonetheless regrettable. Other cuts and trims however (Violetta’s Act 2 letter-writing, Germont’s ‘No, non udrai rimproveri’, the cutting of references to the baron and the duel, the excision of the doctor’s presence from the start of Act 3) feel arbitrary, or worse, are done with the intention of twisting the narrative design.

In some respects, this allows the opera to work towards its own ends without causing too much damage to the dramaturgy of the original. It’s a very lean version of La Traviata consequently and it fairly flies along, running to only one hour and fifty minutes, launching from act to act without time even for an interval. The minimal stage sets – curtains and a chair for the most part, but with strong warm lighting schemes to enhance the overheated nature of the opera – allow for such quick changes, but the dramatic context is just as important as a concept, and that’s unclear here. It’s fine to use curtains in a Brechtian manner to suggest life as a series of scenes in which we often assume the role of characters, but I don’t think this is any more truthful to the human content of the work. It just switches one set of dramatic conventions for another.

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Fitting in with the stripped-down nature of the production, there are no big gestures either from the orchestra under the musical direction of Tecwyn Evans. It’s nice to hear the detail of the score without it being smothered in punchy grand gestures and mannerisms, but it’s questionable whether this is true to the nature of Verdi’s dynamism and sweeping arrangements. Actually, it’s not questionable at all, since it often feels like a mechanical run-though, not giving sufficient sense of the passing of time or the context of the relationship between Alfredo and Violetta, and it does reduce the heightened emotions and impact of the drama. That’s clearly the intention of the music and artistic directors here and, while it may not be traditional, it does put a different and interesting perspective on the work that is worth considering, even if it doesn’t always work.

It’s perhaps only the final scene that has the necessary impact, with the requisite timing that leaves room for the emotions to sink in. Thanks to Petersen’s fine performance, it also just about passes the crucial tear-in-the-eye test. With all the cuts to the score and lack of dramatic setting, this 2011 Graz production is not recommended to anyone watching La Traviata for the first time, but it is not without its merits and it is certainly worthwhile for anyone who has despaired of ever hearing La Traviata approached with some originality, freshness and daring, even if it doesn’t entirely work and certainly doesn’t get to the emotional heart of the work in the way that Verdi intended.

On a BD25 disc, the 1080i image is not exceptional simply because there’s little detail to be seen on stage, and what is there is fairly washed out by the strong orange lighting, but the disc itself is technically sound. The audio mixes, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are wonderful however for anyone who wants to hear the fine detail of the (subdued) orchestral performance and singing. Extras include a 20-minute making of that gets right behind the scenes of the rehearsals and the booklet includes a short interview and a synopsis by the director Peter Konwitchny, which give some idea of his intentions for the production.