When Verdi unveiled La traviata as a "subject of our time", he hoped this salacious tale would receive a performance in modern dress for its première at the Gran Teatro La Fenice. Instead, the censors introduced a distancing effect by moving the action back to the 1700s, thus reducing the work's impact as a critique of contemporary life. Robert Carsen's production acknowledges Verdi's wish by placing the action in a contemporary setting and providing a contemporary message to boot. Though this interpretation has enjoyed repeated success, first reopening La Fenice in 2004 after it burnt down for the third time in its history, and now in its fourth cycle in ten years, there were aspects of this performance that didn't always work.

Francesca Dotto (Violetta) © MIchele Crosera
Francesca Dotto (Violetta)
© MIchele Crosera

A diaphanous fragility in the opening prelude portended Violetta's eventual decline from the very start, as the curtains opened to the heroine curling vulnerably on a bed. But when the music kicked into gear, it was back to business for the courtesan, with streams of men in 1970s shabby-chic entering her boudoir to hand over their cash. 

Violetta is a prostitute in this production (a reminder that Violetta has her roots in Marguerite Gautier, the "demi-mondaine" in Alexandre Dumas filsLa Dame aux camélias) and this central idea yields a seedy aesthetic that is worlds away from her 'good as gold' treatment by directors like Franco Zeffirelli.

If Violetta's vocation is a key feature, it provides a springboard into the central theme – that of money and its corrupting influence – and the filthy lucre turns up just about everywhere, from Giorgio Germont's bribery of Violetta to Dottore Grenvil's insistence on taking payment in cash after visiting her on her deathbed. Flora's house in Act II becomes a tawdry nightclub where gamblers wade through beds of cash as they chain-smoke in the dazzle of disco ball glitz. The Gypsy and Picadors Chorus may have seemed like good fun – theatrical cowboys in leather briefs chafing their cowgirl counterparts – but wolf-whistles and wanton thigh slaps provide a sordid edge, rendering the crowd's eventual rejection of Alfredo and Violetta a gross hypocrisy.

Act II Scene 1 © Michele Crosera
Act II Scene 1
© Michele Crosera

Carsen's idea has interest, though it often lacks emotional depth in a production where uniform gloom pervades at the expense of Verdi's richness. Scene 1 of Act II takes place in a forest where money rains down, which makes Violetta and Alfredo's love duet feel more like the excitement of a couple who have won the jackpot than genuine ardour. Violetta's decline in the arms of Alfredo subsequently felt stale, and matters weren't helped when her collapse went unacknowledged by the removal men in the background, who immediately started to clear her possessions as they puffed on fags with a sense of the diurnal. A certain emotional detachment may well have been the goal here, a Brechtian alienation effect, but it left a bitter taste in the mouth, and a longing for some Verdian warmth to wash it away. 

Where the production lacked colour, the music captured the entirety of Verdi's palette in playing full of nuance. Daniele Rustioni's orchestra had great sophistication and ebb and flow, where an endless forward momentum in the opening portions paused for breath only at the Brindisi. Here, Leonardo Cortellazzi's Aflredo was self-assured, if slightly throaty at the upper end of the register. His counterpart Francesca Dotto was a superb piece of casting as Violetta, with a slight, round voice equipped with a sumptuous legato that juiced out every ounce of emotion from Verdi's spinning lines.

Act II Scene 2 © Michele Crosera
Act II Scene 2
© Michele Crosera

There were strong performances from Sabrina Vianello's Annina and Armando Gabba's Barone Douphol, though the stand out star was Marco Caria as Giorgio Germont, whose rugged, steely timbre in “Di Provenza il mar” captured the colder, sterner side of the character, with well-supported top notes that exploded freely. A particularly arresting image was the Baron stuffing a bribe into the hands of Violetta who begged him to stop, pulling her to the ground to underline the inescapable influence of money.

An opera at La Fenice is a special experience. Just stepping into the auditorium alone is a breathtaking moment: a sea of gold and Venetian blue that sweeps you away with the filigree guilt. La traviata holds a unique place in this company's repertoire, and the orchestra played with a studied panache that belied great dedication. This dark production may have obscured some of the more romantic elements of Verdi’s drama, but the music had all of the vitality to match the venue’s sparkle.