La Traviata at the Deutsche Oper Berlin was an evening of exemplary vocal prowess and unmitigated passion. With elegant direction by Götz Friedrich and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper conducted by Gerard Korsten, La Traviata starred Ailyn Perez, Stephen Costello and Simon Keenlyside in a gobsmackingly sophisticated night of music.

© Bernd Uhlig
© Bernd Uhlig

Set in the 1930s, Friedrich’s production alternates between stark and busy: a single huge room with numerous French doors serves as both the scene of Violetta’s Act I party, the lovers’ country idyll, Flora’s bordello and the apartment where Violetta breathes her last. Characters prance in and out; the doors open to show dining rooms, gardens, or carnival scenes. Beauty is not sacrificed to economy, although there are some strange moments, such as Flora’s sartorial choices of white tails and heels in Act I and corset, coat and boots for Act II (explained, perhaps, by her setting up of couples in her distinctly bordello-like rooms), and also the fact that Violetta died in a room missing all of its windows. However, the staging and direction force the audience to focus on the singing.

La Traviata may be one of the best-known operas of all time: it is hardly an exaggeration to say that even operatic neophytes know the shameless oom-pah-pah of the “Brindisi” and the trope of the dying courtesan with a heart of gold. The fact that Verdi’s opera manages to transcend its reputation and still touch audiences today speaks to the power of the music involved. As Violetta, the dying courtesan who gives up her one chance at true love to save the honor of her lover’s family, Ailyn Perez sang with a clear, sweet voice. Aside from a touch of sharpness during “Sempre libera”, Perez’s golden tone was spot on throughout the night. Her acting, too, was elegant: Violetta was always dignified, a lady in character if not in name, no matter what awful things the men around her were perpetrating.

© Bettina Stöß
© Bettina Stöß
Perez’s Alfredo was sung by a tenor in an unusual position for on-stage lovers: Stephen Costello has the great good luck of being married to Perez. Costello’s Alfredo was stylish and sweet: boyish and naïve without ever descending into general goobery (though one does wonder how he managed to spend three months living in luxury without ever realizing that he wasn’t earning a dime). His passion, be it ardor or anger, always simmered just below the surface. It was a passion that he shared with his father, Germont, here sung by Simon Keenlyside. Germont père’s passion, however, was much more adult, much more controlled. Keenlyside presented a man concerned about his children’s chances in life, eager for them to be both socially accepted and happy. He sang with real sophistication, his baritone rich and revitalizing.

Under Gerard Korsten’s baton, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper played with precision, never once drowning out the singers, as is its general inclination. The three stars were supported by a lovely cast of ensemble members, namely Christina Sidak as the madam Flora, Alexandra Hutton’s Annina and Stephen Bronk’s Baron Duphol. Friedrich’s production of La Traviata is a fixture at the Deutsche Oper (this was its 114th performance since its première in 1999), but with musicians such as Keenlyside, Perez and Costello, it shines like new every time.