La Traviata is such a warhorse that we often forget how many issues it raises for presenting a staging that can convince us of what is in the first analysis a quite ludicrous story, despite Verdi's veristic intentions. That Violetta is so sympathetic, idealistic, noble and moral can strike one as hopelessly naïve and even patronising given her profession and background, but its very high status amongst Verdi's output speaks of its masterful dramatic thrust and powerful emotional arc, and, by no means least, its superb music.

Cristina Gallardo-Domás in La traviata, directed by Günter Krämer. Premiere: 25 July 1993 in the © Wilfried Hösl
Cristina Gallardo-Domás in La traviata, directed by Günter Krämer. Premiere: 25 July 1993 in the
© Wilfried Hösl

Günter Krämer's production updates the piece to some point in the early 20th century with a mishmash of costumes, hairstyles and sets that centre around 1920s art deco. Social or political commentary is studiously avoided and it's not made at all obvious that Violetta may be a courtesan or even all that wild – she's dressed in virginal white, and seems entirely embarrassed by male attention. The opening party scene is decidedly tame, with a slowly weaving conga line and a glass-rotating routine being the main signs of revelry. In contrast to the rich colours and lush visuals of Act I, in Act II we open on a lonely Alfredo pacing around an autumnal garden with broken garden furniture strewn around and a swing which various characters periodically attempt to mount. Later in the act, back in the opulence of society life, card tricks replace glass-rotating for another meaningless dance routine, and then the Act IV reconciliation is as simple as could be – except for Violetta's final recuperation, which is presented as a walking "towards the light" after she's died, rather than before.

Though Andreas Reinhardt's set designs are often very visually striking, as a whole, this production is very plain and offers no strong point of view or insights on the opera, with the result that it appears just as a series of scenes with no strong dramatic thread linking them. This same plainness presumably also makes it easily rehearsable and therefore suitable as a diva vehicle, but it really did feel like it needed a Violetta with a strong point of view to give it focus and drive. Sadly, star soprano Anja Harteros pulled out at the last minute and was replaced by relative unknown Maria Agresta, who had already performed the role in this production earlier this season.

Agresta's technique is solid and her basic tone is very attractive and silvery, with a particularly warm middle. Her intonation was basically also very good – occasional mishaps on high notes could be forgiven as she stepped in at such short notice and probably didn't have time to get the role fully back "in the voice". In the fiendish Act I finale, however, her coloratura was rather sluggish and approximate and the unvarying tone (however pretty), lack of vocal acting, and self-regarding stage business made one hanker for a more nuanced portrait. She can float some beautiful pianissimos, but they always felt like a vocal trick or some nod to tradition rather than deriving from a dramatic or textual necessity. Things improved for her in the second act, which seemed more musically placed towards her strengths, her duet with Keenleyside's Germont was wonderfully rendered and she received a rapturous reception at the final curtain.

Ramón Vargas made a pleasingly ardent Alfredo, though he seemed adrift dramatically in the production and was prone to stock gestures and acting. Vocally, the tone has hardened and seems more pushed than it used to be, but his technique is excellent and one is never in doubt of his full commitment to the part or mastery of the music. Simon Keenleyside stole the show, however, as Germont: vocally magnificent and endlessly nuanced in timbre, expression, volume and articulation. One interesting aspect of this production is that he actually drags Alfredo's sister along with him in Act II, manipulating her into helping him calm Alfredo, and she seems as unhappy about the whole thing as Alfredo is. It offers a nice insight into his dysfunctional family and Germont emerges as even more overbearing than usual. Keenleyside is still very good-looking, and much too commanding a presence still to be a convincingly old Germont – one often wondered why Violetta was so interested in his son!

The unbelievable plushness of the Bayerische Staatsorchester's basic sound was amply demonstrated in the gorgeous violin section sound in the prelude to Act III, followed by an equally wonderful violin solo by the uncredited leader during Violetta's spoken letter-reading, but throughout the evening ensemble was often sorely lacking, and things regularly felt on the brink of chaos in the faster sections of Acts I and II, conductor Omer Meir Wellber only just holding things together. Surely a lack of adequate rehearsal was also to blame for frequent tempo changes, usually requiring a bar or two to settle down fully.

Overall this performance suffered from a feeling of being under-rehearsed and, left bereft of its star soprano, surely the main point of this revival, felt a little lackadaisical and dramatically inert.

***11