In its long and illustrious history, the Wiener Staatsoper has only had four productions of Verdi’s ubiquitous tear-jerker, La traviata. What is even more remarkable is that this perennial favourite was first seen in the Staatsoper as late as 1957 – over a hundred years after it was first performed in Venice. The previous production by Otto Schenk, predictably traditional, was first staged in 1971 and had been dusted off for over 280 performances. Certainly it was time to take a fresh look at this most performed of Verdi’s masterpieces, but the Aix-en-Provence Festival co-production that replaced it pays scant attention to Piave’s compassionate libretto.

French-born director Jean-François Sivadier has anything but an impressive resumé in opera.  Prior to the Aix-en-Provence Traviata, he had only directed two operas in Lille. He was originally a stage comedian, but unfortunately there was neither humour, humanity nor insight in his interpretation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic drama.

Before the poignant short Preludio, people in contemporary clothing wandered aimlessly about the curtain-less stage greeting each other as if waiting to go clubbing when the free booze runs out. Violetta’s chic Parisian salon looked more like a railway waiting-room. Sivadier’s heroine is not only ill and fallen but is a chronic alcoholic and sex maniac as well. 

Violetta must have been really scammed by the pawn-brokers as the idyllic house in the country was hardly furnished at all, except for some loose bedding on the floor where it would appear she and Alfredo spent most of their time. During “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”, Violetta undresses her toy-boy to the point of a muscle bulging singlet. Sivadier fails to understand that Violetta has finally found love – not just sex with more virility.

Badly painted clouds and cheap chandeliers hung down in most of the scenes making the setting difficult to determine. Flora’s grand reception could have been in a car-park. The ‘Zingare’ looked like line-dancers in a down-market disco. Violetta’s boudoir was again a vast bed-less space and just in case the audience didn’t get the point that the heroine was about to fall off  the proverbial perch, “Violetta Traviata” had been scrawled on a rear wall then slowly erased.

Given such a mediocre mis-en-scène, it was not surprising that the singers failed to make any dramatic impact. As Père Germont, Carlos Álvarez displayed commendable projection and a ringing top register (the high E flats in “Pura si come un angelo” were especially good) but maintained a one-dimensional gravity of character throughout.

Pin-up tenor Pavol Breslik was a committed Alfredo, constrained by poor direction. The idea of swilling vodka then arriving paralytic at Flora’s soirée made him more like a vicious Nemorino than a passionate young man in a jealous rage. Breslik’s unforced singing was meticulous to the dynamic markings and eschewed any temptation for cheap vocal effects. There was some lovely phrasing in his Act II cabaletta “O mio rimorso!” which displayed a solid fioratura. Whilst Breslik’s voice is not particularly large, it has an outstanding tenore di grazie quality.

Any Traviata will succeed or fail on the strength of the Violetta. Making her Staatsoper debut, young Russian soprano Irina Lungu ticked all the boxes but paradoxically failed to make a lasting impression. Her coloratura technique is exemplary and the top C naturals, B flats and interpolated E flat in “Sempre libera” were flawless, as were her runs and roulades. Mid-register and low notes were warm and surprisingly plummy for a coloratura. Her vibrato-less pianissimo A natural concluding “Addio del passato” was pristine. Despite being of diminutive stature, there was also plenty of projection in the big concertante conclusion to Act II. The only explanation as to why the performance was not a triumph must be Sivadier’s utterly unsympathetic, compassionless characterization.

Even the usually impeccable Wiener Staatsoper orchestra sounded uninspired. Conductor Michael Schøwandt seemed intend on setting speed records with the score and although there were several well controlled fermate, there was very little breadth of Verdian phrasing. It almost seemed as if the orchestra was playing rollicking Rossini rather than broad-palette Verdi. The first clarinet in “Addio del passato” was shrill and raspy. Even the usually incomparable Vienna strings sounded pinched and were only minimally mellifluous. This performance was not to the standard one is used to hearing from the world’s finest opera orchestra.