Of the many and varied operatic openings, that of La Traviata is one that I find increasingly demanding on an emotional level. The mournful harmonies and diaphanous scoring for strings that start off the prelude notoriously portray ill-fated Violetta moments before she dies of TB, returning in the final act as her destiny is about to be fulfilled. We are, that is, plunged from the very outset into the darkest, barest side of Verdi’s account of the prostitute’s social and psychological drama – with little time to adjust from frivolous post-supper conversations to the intense emotions and moral questions the opera is bound to awaken. How cruel (one might think), and yet how moving, the load of trust Verdi put on the shoulders of his audience!
The musical interpretation of Verdi’s prelude on the opening night of the new ENO–Opera Graz co-production, directed by Peter Konwitschny, seemed, at first, to do little to breathe life into the musical portrait of the heroine. The orchestra, led by German conductor Michael Hofstetter, played the piece with a pertinaciously chilly, impassive sound, which allowed for little poignancy in the first part (associated with Violetta’s deadly decline) and few contrasts of this with the more serene, subsequent sections (painting, in reverse chronological order, Violetta as she appears in her previous loving and coquettish attitudes of Acts II and I). But perhaps this was exactly the point. A sense of aloofness, of emotional disengagement underpins, in a sense, the entire production. The lack of scenery, replaced by a mere set of silky red curtains gradually drawn aside or pulled down, and the economical supply of props (a pile of books, a chair, and little more), combine with up-to-date, ordinary costumes in distancing Violetta’s drama from any specific era.
This goes somewhat against Verdi’s rendering of the heroine’s subjectivity precisely by weaving her, musically, into her background (mid 19th-century waltzy Parisian society). Yet, one could say, the daring, shocking character that Verdi had conceived for his “realistic” depiction of the opera’s modern subject matter – illness and prostitution – is recovered in Konwitschny’s overwhelmingly disenchanted take on all the characters but the prostitute. Violetta’s isolation is complete, her only possible companion in her condition as an “outsider” being awkward bookworm Alfredo. But in the end even he abandons her: her death coincides with her retreat backstage – her disappearance behind one last, now black, curtain – while all other characters are turned into far-off spectators, observing the pitiful events on stage from within the audience. Those impassive initial notes of the prelude, when I heard them again in Act III, suddenly took on new meaning.
Konwitschny’s idea, as the programme notes make it clear, was indeed that of disentangling Violetta’s drama from any historical ambience. There are hints, in fact, at some kind of symbolism (“a symbolic world of theatre drapes”, in the words of the director), almost at grasping some eternal truths. Perhaps for this reason, each of the principals is depicted as somewhat one-dimensional, allowing little room for psychological change or multi-layered personalities. Ben Johnson brought to the tenor lover, Alfredo, a constant quality of clumsiness that at times felt unnecessary, almost bordering on the comic; he sang, though, throughout with a beautiful voice and clear diction, only seldom struggling to find enough power in the upper range. Anthony Michaels-Moore delivered an impressive performance as Germont senior, his Act II duet with the soprano including the surprise introduction of Alfredo’s sister (Kezhe Julian Temir). Again, however, in Konwitschny’s reading Germont père was reinvented as a bully, who appeared not so much chillingly intimidating as consistently irksome.
Finally, Corinne Winters was an outstanding Violetta, who proved capable of controlling the various aspects of vocal technique demanded by Verdi’s operatic tour de force. That she appeared, almost until the end, a little over-energetic, at times even hysterical, in her dramatic presence seems to be in line with the relatively stylised portrayals of the rest of the cast. In some way, this very tendency to one-sided characterisation, perhaps even to an overemphasis on the divide between “good” and “bad”, “insiders” and “outsiders”, may cause a sense of uneasy detachment from the events going on onstage. In other words: when you, along with Konwitschny, want the theatre to be a way to “make us more human”, you must also surrender to and acknowledge the sheer complexity and contradictions that form the human being.
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