Mirrors are a recurring theme in La traviata. Violetta begins her rueful aria “Addio, del passato” only when she glimpses herself in a looking glass. And librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s apparently casual references to mirrors (he indicates one should be placed above the fireplace in the Violetta’s Parisian parlour and another next to a clock in her country house) play an important dramatic function. Mirrors place Violetta at the heart of the action by indicating the opera is primarily an expression of the character’s subjective experience as oppressive social realities take form around her, and also provide the means through which her ensuing physical and psychological transformation is made clear to herself and, ultimately, the audience. They also reflect Verdi’s predicament – at the time of writing Traviata his scandalous relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi made him the subject of Busseto gossip – in Violetta’s story. In featuring a large panel of mirrors, the late Josef Svoboda’s historic production of Traviata, now commonly known as the “Traviata of the Mirrors”, is therefore onto something.

Salome Jicia (Violetta Valéry) © Alfredo Tabocchini
Salome Jicia (Violetta Valéry)
© Alfredo Tabocchini

The production has played all over the world since its première in 1992 at the Macerata Opera Festival, and now it has returned to the place of its birth. Svoboda’s mirrors continue to provoke interesting considerations. Titled above the stage they project a birds-eye view of the action to the audience, making voyeurs of us all and casting us as the judgemental guests that frequent Violetta’s soirées. The mirrors tilt further during the final scene to reflect the audience face on, making the point that Violetta, a victim of society’s prejudices, represents us all.

© Alfredo Tabocchini
© Alfredo Tabocchini

Svoboda’s sets are pleasing on the eye. Printed sheets positioned on the ground are peeled back to reveal various designs reflected above including semi-nude demi-mondes and lush gardens views. It is a shame that the direction from Henning Brockhaus, who collaborated with Svoboda from the start, is so stale. Brockhaus is strong on blocking, but little else. The smaller details he does provide, such as Violetta taking a swig of champagne from the bottle or an enraged Alfredo throwing over a chair, are clichéd and unimaginative. Visually appealing backgrounds are not enough; this production needs sharper direction.

Salome Jicia (Violetta Valéry) and Iván Ayón Rivas (Alfredo Germont) © Alfredo Tabocchini
Salome Jicia (Violetta Valéry) and Iván Ayón Rivas (Alfredo Germont)
© Alfredo Tabocchini

Thankfully, a world-class singer like Luca Salsi is on hand to raise the quality overall. The baritone’s rock solid technique is constantly evident in gorgeous legato singing and a free, well-supported sound which turns beautifully at the top. He is also deeply expressive, combing a sense of spontaneity with innate musicality to knead nuance into every word and explore the music’s full emotional range. Salsi conveyed deep nostalgia in “Provenza del mar”, and in his duet with Violetta we strongly felt the pain of a father forced to inflict suffering on the person he sees as his daughter. Such commanding interpretations of this role do not come round every day.

© Alfredo Tabocchini
© Alfredo Tabocchini

Iván Ayón Rivas (Alfredo), the young Peruvian tenor, may not have been as dramatically varied, but he has a warm and rounded tone and his voice rings impressively. Salome Jicia is a solid Violetta, effectively conveying the character’s irrepressible joie de vivre and her ultimate grief. In musical terms, this production’s weakest element is the playing. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson gave a flat, dull reading of the score. There is little authority in Wilson’s direction: indeed you sense her following the singers for the most part. With better playing and direction this might have been a highlight Traviata. On this occasion, strong casting ensures it provides much to enjoy.

****1