La traviata, the most performed opera in the world according to some sources, has become the victim of its own popularity. A different production can always re-engage one’s interest, however, and for about the first 20 minutes of Peter Mussbach’s dark reimagining of Verdi’s tale of love and loss, I was intrigued. Sadly, it went downhill rapidly from there, and taken together with some indifferent singing, made for a desperately disappointing evening.

Starting with the positives, the orchestra was excellent throughout and filled the ethereal opening strains of the Prelude with real fervour. Far upstage, a glimmer of light lit the ends of a dress, which slowly pulsed like some bioluminescent deep-sea creature. Raindrops were projected onto the front see-through scrim and back wall. Ever so gradually, the figure wearing the dress approached, and eventually was revealed to be Violetta, in a white dress and a Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde wig.

<i>La traviata</i> at Staatsoper Berlin © Ruth Walz
La traviata at Staatsoper Berlin
© Ruth Walz

Her colours were significant, as everyone else in the cast was completely in black (men in 1920s gangster outfits, women like Bellatrix Lestrange). Not that we saw any other singers for quite a while: the opening exchanges in Act 1 were sung off-stage, emphasising Violetta’s interior aloneness. Instead, a series of men slowly paced downstage and vanished into the pit. Only with the introduction of Alfredo did other singers gradually join Violetta on the otherwise entirely empty stage. The only props used were a single chair in Act II, and the chairs the chorus brought on for themselves during the second party scene.

The inversion of the norm, whereby the ‘fallen one’ [la traviata] was the only bright colour, was an interesting idea as, in theory, was staging the work as a kind of projected psychodrama of the heroine. This reached its apogee in the almost expressionist take on Flora’s party, where Violetta wandered through actively hostile fellow guests, and was assaulted by her friend’s boyfriend. However, the lack of visual stimulus in this almost entirely dark production threw a lot of attention on the acting, and here nothing was offered. This was deliberate: an alienation aesthetic seemed to be in place, whereby the actors did not emote visually or gesturally. The chorus’ response to Alfredo’s insult, when they stood on chairs and sang like automata, was indicative of broader trends. At other times (for example, the final chorus of the Brindisi), they twiddled their hands and arms in slow motion.

Naturally, little cognisance was taken of the original stage directions. This led to unintentional comedy such as Alfredo singing of Violetta’s absence when she was still standing behind him on the same chair. In a sop to realism, there actually was a real game of cards in Act II, before which Alfredo had entered, gagging Violetta. Act III lived down to expectations: in place of Violetta’s sickbed she was slumped downstage, while in the middle of her aria “Addio del passato”, we were distracted by the sight of someone lying wrapped in a cloak upstage. This turned out to be Alfredo, who revealed himself to us far in advance of his mandated ‘entrance’ in the libretto.

Much could be forgiven were the singers outstanding. But in truth only Alfredo Daza, playing Germont père, came out with full credit. His Act II duet with Violetta was unquestionably the high point of the evening, genuinely emotionally engaging, at least until the injection of some Freudian overtones (she sat on his knee during “Un dì, quando le veneri”).

The heroine, Evelin Novak, had a warm, sweet voice, but little in the way of acting skills, even making allowances for the direction she must have been given. Her coloratura in “Sempre libera” was only passable, although the high notes were secure. Rhythmically, she was frequently unsteady, well ahead of the orchestra during her great cry “Amami, Alfredo” in Act II, for instance.

Ivan Magrì, playing Alfredo, adopted the old-fashioned ‘stand and deliver’ style, and was clearly uncomfortable on his top pitches, each reached by a push from below. The severe co-ordination problems which nearly derailed “Parigi, o cara” were mostly his responsibility. Domingo Hindoyan on the podium was an indulgent figure, pulling the tempo back as the singers struggled. Among the minor roles, Annika Schlicht (Anina), Jan Martiník (doctor) and Grigory Shkarupa (d’Obigny) had promising voices.

It’s very rare for me to leave the theatre in such a state of exasperation. I was offended at the cynicism behind inflicting this half-baked, poorly executed concept on an opera which will inevitably draw the crowds. The visible disenchantment of the cast was mirrored in the audience’s extremely lukewarm response. It would be much better to declare a Traviata moratorium and do some other less hackneyed middle-period Verdi opera instead of mounting this alienating travesty.