For Nicola Raab’s new production of La traviata, the Komische Oper’s website promised deconstruction and reinterpretation. On entering the auditorium you’re presented straight away with Madeleine Boyd’s single set – something like a converted warehouse, with exposed brickwork and a dividing wall of dirty windows. A computer with webcam sits on a desk; a pair of patent leather platform heels stand minding their own business downstage, silent witnesses to the drama.

Natalya Pavlova (Violetta) © Iko Freese | drama.berlin.de
Natalya Pavlova (Violetta)
© Iko Freese | drama.berlin.de

Violetta is a contemporary sex worker, the programme tells us, “working in the digital sphere”. Snatches of Verdi’s score echo around the theatre distantly and disconcertingly before she arrives on stage as the Prelude starts out of nothing – its progress occasionally paused as our heroine moves deliberately around before lazily firing up her computer and stripping down to a corset. We see projections of the corset, intercut with x-rays. She keeps hard copies of the x-rays are her bag, along with a mysterious box – an end-of-life kit, finally shown to contain a tourniquet and syringe. They accompany her throughout, constant reminders of her (unidentified) condition.

Having discovered her mystery diagnosis, Violetta starts, a programme interview with Raab suggests, to stage her own internal drama. She remains apart from everyone else on stage, at least for Act 1. When the party gets underway, the guests, in black jackets and top hats (costumes by Annemarie Woods), appear as a threatening mob upstage. They rush towards us carrying their own furniture. They interact in jerky unison. Violetta never looks any of them in the eye, or even acknowledges their presence. It’s unsettling, disquieting, and stylishly done.

Natalya Pavlova (Violetta) © Iko Freese | drama.berlin.de
Natalya Pavlova (Violetta)
© Iko Freese | drama.berlin.de

There’s another arresting touch, too, as we go straight into Act 2 (the interval comes between the second act’s two scenes). As Alfredo sits alone on stage waiting for the music to start, a generous portion of autumnal leaves suddenly flops heavily down from the flies. But as the show progresses, one starts to wonder how its various parts add up, how the online premise should be understood in relation to the distinctly offline drama that Verdi lays out in front of us.

Although webcams and mobile phones feature prominently in Act 2 Scene 2, Raab never really develops the idea or explains what it’s got to do with Alfredo’s relationship with Violetta; or where Germont père fits into it all, whether on a personal level or as the figure who steers the plot forcefully towards tragedy; or why, indeed, either of them should be there at all in the protagonist’s own internal drama. Romance, in case anyone turns up looking for that, is notably absent.

That said, though, there’s an undeniable power in the final scene as Violetta, having finally administered her fatal medicine, is gradually abandoned: Alfredo slowly walks away backwards, his father having long left the scene. Or is the story she’s created simply dissolving as she herself succumbs to the drugs? Matters are left deliberately open-ended, but I was ultimately left simultaneously wishing the production was more radical – it was difficult not to compare it with Peter Konwitschny’s bolder rethinking staged in Graz and London – and feeling relieved that technology hadn’t been able to run riot. And, as with so many updatings of this work, it doesn’t quite succeed in replacing what it takes out.

Philipp Meierhöfer (Grenvil), Günter Papendell (Germont), Natalya Pavlova, Ivan Magrì (Alfredo) © Iko Freese | drama.berlin.de
Philipp Meierhöfer (Grenvil), Günter Papendell (Germont), Natalya Pavlova, Ivan Magrì (Alfredo)
© Iko Freese | drama.berlin.de

That it proves engaging theatre, though, is down the stylishness of its execution, not to mention the fine cast the Komische Oper has gathered together. Natalya Pavlova is a superb Violetta. Her soprano is dark and rich (she eschews the high option at the end of “Sempre libera”), and her performance gains dramatic and vocal stature as the evening progresses. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had from Ivan Magrì’s bright, keenly sung Alfredo, too, even if he’d have been wise similarly to stay down at the end of his Act 2 cabaletta. House favourite Günter Papendell makes a sturdy, stiff Germont, and special mention for Marta Mika’s Annina, a sympathetic presence always on hand throughout to pick up the pieces – metaphorical and literal.

Ainārs Rubiķis breathes plenty of life into Verdi’s familiar score, keeping things taut, especially with choral contributions, even if one occasionally wished for him to take more time. In sum, then, not the groundbreaking Traviata it claims to be, but an effective, often arresting show that I’d imagine will serve the Komische Oper well.

****1