The Teatro di San Carlo couldn’t have closed its 2014-15 season in a better way than with Verdi’s La traviata, so rooted in our culture that it is familiar even to people who never attend opera. Due to its fame, most opera houses are willing to capitalise on this opera's popularity, and to do so, a good production helps, as is the case with this revival of a 2012 staging by film director Ferzan Ozpetek and by Oscar-winning scenographer Dante Ferretti. Ozpetek tells the story efficiently and recognisably and his cinematic experience is evident in his attention to details, as well as in the solidity and depth of the staging concept, which was dramaturgically pleasant and musically agreeable.

Maria Grazia Schiavo (Violetta) © Luciano Romano | Teatro San Carlo
Maria Grazia Schiavo (Violetta)
© Luciano Romano | Teatro San Carlo

The director moved the action from mid-1800s to the Belle Époque, in a Parisian demi-monde immersed in a decadent Proustian atmosphere. As the drama goes on though, the lavishness of the scenes gets more and more withered, from the sumptuous ballroom in the opening untll the desolation of the final scene where, surrounded by darkness, Violetta's bed is hit by a harsh white light. Ozpetek, an Italian moviemaker of Turkish descent, did not omit to add oriental suggestions, supported by Ferretti’s scenery and Alessandro Lai’s costumes.

Neapolitan soprano Maria Grazia Schiavo Violetta was an effective Violetta, both dramatically and vocally. She has gained quite a reputation as a Baroque singer, and this was her debut as Violetta in her hometown.

In the opening scenes, despite showing remarkable technical mastery in the ascending scales of “Sempre libera”, she appeared somewhat shy or insecure in outlining the character of the courtesan. But from Act II onwards, she was more and more imposing and impassioned, starting from her encounter with Giorgio Germont, who offered her an anchor of sturdiness and profundity. In the last act, Violetta’s desperate vulnerability could finally catch the audience's heart. Schiavo’s achievement has to be valued still more impressive, as she does not naturally possess the warm and glowing voice for this role, but has a quite cool and firm singing which is more commonly heard in Baroque opera.

Giovanni Meoni (Germont) and Maria Grazia Schiavo (Violetta) © Luciano Romano | Teatro San Carlo
Giovanni Meoni (Germont) and Maria Grazia Schiavo (Violetta)
© Luciano Romano | Teatro San Carlo

Spanish tenor Ismael Jordi suggested the youth and callowness of Alfredo, and his vocalism was never less than adroit. He has a full-bodied and compact voice, and in that sense he is appropriate as Violetta’s lover, also offering some delicate phrasing, tempered with volume, but, overall, his tenor voice lacked some of the maturity and weight required for this role.

Baritone Giovanni Meoni was excellent as Giorgio Germont, making the difference both as an individual character and for being a steady point of reference for the other two principals’ less homogeneous performance. It is Germont's relationship with Violetta which marks the story's enthralling turning point. Meoni possesses a true Verdian voice, round and authoritative, with a large, dark resounding baritone that leads the game from the very moment he enters.

As for the smaller roles, Marta Calcaterra was an effective Annina, while bass-baritone Fernando Piqueras was Baron Douphol and Massimiliano Chiarolla was Gastone. The San Carlo Chorus exhibited excellent vocal cohesion, and they had fun with their role, and so had the dancers who brightened the party scene.

Maria Grazia Schiavo (Violetta) © Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo
Maria Grazia Schiavo (Violetta)
© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo

The most stimulating aspect of the night was the opportunity to listen to the 84-year-old conductor Nello Santi, whom I had appreciated more than once for his intelligent capacity to exploit all the potential of the operas he leads. Yet, this time I was a bit surprised by the slowest tempos I’ve ever heard for Traviata, as well as by the feeling that some passages of the orchestra were too fragmentary.

Santi conducted a performance that showed an eye for Verdian detail and maintained a tight concentration, but that only at times made us experience all the emotional depths this opera contains.