La traviata famously tells the story of a high-level prostitute in Paris in the early 19th century, and her ill-fated love story. Director Simon Stone translates the story into the contemporary age. Violetta is not only a prostitute, but an influencer, with millions of followers on Instagram and Twitter. She has her own perfume line and is a huge celebrity. Robert Cousins’ stage is an enormous revolving cube corner (the three adjacent sides of a cube), bright white inside, while the outside is made of screens. During the prelude, these screen show us Violetta’s social media feed, the Instagram selfies, comments from her followers, but also emails from doctors advising therapy for her cancer (which replaces consumption as the illness that will kill her). Unfortunately, the movement of the cube was quite noisy, and it disrupted the magnificent performance of the Wiener Staatsopernorchester. The cube kept revolving for most of the evening, and the singers, standing on the same platform, had to continuously walk to stay on the front of the stage. They must have clocked up many miles!

Pretty Yende (Violetta)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

In Act 1, the description of Violetta’s party was dramatically quite effective: the chorus queue to enter a trendy club, the protagonist jumping the line as a VIP; and then the party in the blinding white cube, the only prop being a gigantic pyramid of glasses where Alfredo pours the champagne (after a perfectly timed “pop” of the cork, at tempo with the orchestra). In Act 2, everything feels out of place – the tractor is too big, the chapel too small, and Violetta and Alfredo are very roughly dressed as farmers. Maybe the director was telling us that this rural life was fake and wouldn't have lasted anyway. Still, we could have done without Alfredo pressing the grapes with his bare feet while singing “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”. The party at Flora’s was a mix between a fancy dress ball and an orgy, with explicit images in neon lights in the background and the chorus wearing the weirdest costumes, many with BDSM overtones. Doctor Grenvil had a dildo strapped on his forehead (sideways, not in front, thank you Lord). Alfredo came as Donald Duck. The third act was mostly in the oncology ward of a hospital, again with the blinding white background. 

Frédéric Antoun (Alfredo)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Stone's basic idea came through and the use of modern media was very interesting and effective. However, the director did not solve the problem every Traviata dragged into modern times faces, which is that today it would be not such a big deal if a guy marries an ex-prostitute. Nobody would care that much, to the extent of ruining lives. The tentative solution was that the boyfriend of Alfredo’s sister, the one who abandons her because her brother is living a depraved life, is here a Saudi prince, hence, supposedly, very conservative. This is a stretch and hardly convincing. Also, the singers constantly walking hindered all Personenregie: their interactions were fairly stereotypical, and Violetta wandering on stage, walking on the spot while she is supposedly dying was just a bit silly. Emojis instead of emotions, at the end of the day. 

Frédéric Antoun (Alfredo) and Pretty Yende (Violetta)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Nicola Luisotti conducted a very emotional reading of the score, which came through in every detail. The orchestra’s sound was as beautiful as ever, the strings sobbing, the dynamics effective, it was a pleasure throughout. The chorus was impressive, both in dynamics and in being perfectly at tempo. Pretty Yende sang Violetta with mixed results. She certainly has the coloratura for the first act, and ended “Sempre libera” with a phenomenal super high E flat. She was less convincing in “Ah fors’è lui”, and also in the second act in general, where her filati came out at times breathy and perhaps not perfectly supported. Her intonation and her breathing also didn’t seem constantly rock solid. She was very good in the interpretation of Violetta's different moods, depicting a truly 3-dimensional character. Her “Addio del passato” was effective. 

Ludovic Tézier (Germont)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Alfredo was Frédéric Antoun, who showed very good breathing and legato, but whose timbre sounded somewhat foggy; at times it felt his voice got “stuck” in the back of his throat. He was very confident on the high notes. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, was Ludovic Tézier, who was a delight throughout. His interpretation was a little stiff, but that goes with the character; his elegant phrasing and the warm, mellow timbre of his voice gave Germont authority and great presence. He also sang the often cut cabaletta “No non udrai rimproveri”, which is – let’s say – not the best music Verdi ever wrote, and managed to make it sound good. Honourable mention to Stephanie Maitland, who sang Annina with a low-centred, powerful and smooth mezzo.