How provocative is opera allowed to be? In Giuseppe Verdi’s lifetime, acceptable practice was somewhat more circumscribed than today, so the composer was forced to put on ice his plans to bring a “modern” Traviata to the stage. Then, the real-life model for Violetta, Marie Duplessis, was only five years in her grave, so Verdi’s material was regarded too contemporary and controversial for him to be able to confront an opera audience with it. David Herrmann’s highly modern staging for Zurich Opera demonstrates how current the story still feels today.

 Already, as the curtain rises during the overture, we see a party in Violetta’s house, in which the few guests are bored, the hostess is trying desperately to lighten up the mood while in the end, the guests who do arrive are only there for the buffet. Most of us have experienced a similar situation at one time or another, just as we might have seen similar plain leather sofas at the home of a friend. The costumes of the characters on stage bear a striking resemblance to the clothes of the audience, increasing the impression that the story is being played out in the here and now. Since we don’t often see tuberculosis today, this Violetta is afflicted by a different disease: hers is a mental illness.

Whether party, love or religion, she staggered from one extreme emotion to the next, always displaying a markedly self-destructive tendency. It was already after the general rehearsal when Sonya Yoncheva was only brought in to replace Anita Hartig, but she still portrayed the personality of borderline burnout with convincing intensity. Her Violetta had no grand, ladylike gestures, rather a continuous melancholy pairing of insecurity and nerves. This personality was most obvious in the scene with Germont, as she started swaying nervously hither and thither, and ultimately started to self-harm in her despair.

With tearful piani and furious outbursts, Yoncheva was captivating from her very first note, her voice imbuing her character with morbid fragility. In recent months, her voice has gained in fullness, depth and richness of tonal colour, but without any loss of flexibility. As well as a dark, velvety tone, she produced pearlescent coloratura in Sempre libera, powerful drama in Act II and pure despair in Addio del passato.  Hermann produced an effective coup de théâtre in Act III: the reunion takes place only in Violetta’s imagination, for she is dying alone in a hospice, with Alfredo and Giorgio Germont appearing only as creatures of her illusion. Yoncheva sang and played the “mad scene” this created impressively, from her initial hope until her final collapse. She was absolutely in a class of her own; fortunately, however, her co-stars matched her strong performance.

In Act I, Pavol Breslik gave Alfredo the character of a shy outsider, both in manner and in his voice. He did not seek to thrill or to belt, but sang softly, with magnificently lyrical phrasing and fine piani. His acting was in complete harmony with this vocal portrayal. In contrast to the hectic party-going company, he appeared as an oasis of calm, trying to bring a breath of cool air into Violetta’s arid bedchamber. The realisation of the dreadful financial circumstances made for a drastic turning point: the character of Breslik’s Alfredo changed in an instant, both in body language and voice, he became aggressive, even offensive.

If hitherto he had held himself back vocally, in Act II, Breslik became powerful and impulsive. With this total transformation, he gave an impressively believable portrait of a naive young man. He was equally convincing and strong in his return as ghost in Violetta’s delusion scene. The duet Parigi o cara, in which she seeks desperately to hold on to the illusion of Alfredo, was heartrendingly hopeless. Yoncheva and Breslik sang each to themselves, as the staging left no possible space for the closeness of a classic duet, yet they achieved a touching moment as the two voices were joined in despair.

No less emotional was the previous scene between Violetta and Giorgio Germont. Although Quinn Kelsey doesn’t look like a standard father figure, his warm baritone exuded natural authority and great calm. His Germont was no mean cynic but a family man, who rapidly comes to sympathise with Violetta, but whose code of civic morals forces to set his sympathy aside. Thus he seems to gain a better rapport with Violetta than with his own son Alfredo. Kelsey expressed this difference clearly: the scenes with Violetta were marked mainly by gentle, comforting piani, while in the father-son scenes, he used a far less sympathetic mezzoforte.

Conducting Philharmonia Zurich, Marco Armiliato supported the singers in their different natures. Slow tempi and soft notes contrasted with the required loud and dramatic passages, and from these contrasts, intensive tension was created as orchestra and singers joined forces in a highly emotional symbiosis.

In short: perfect evenings of opera are rare. But they do happen.


Translated from German by David Karlin.