Deborah Warner’s new production of La Traviata for the Wiener Festwochen is dotted with dramatic ideas to much the same extent as flowers are strewn and champagne is uncorked in the Act I ‘Brindisi’ (drinking song), which is to say sparingly. A minor updating of look, done on the cheap if costumes and props are anything to go by, proceeds according to Verdi’s conception of a contemporary tale, but seems at odds with Warner’s reluctance to pursue the work’s modern resonances. Patriarchal structures dominate late capitalism but manipulate and stifle individual will in different ways to the social conventions which play out in the narrative-propelling Violetta-Germont scene, and presenting these unmediated in a updated setting without finding appropriate modern parallels takes us down an illogical path. In Act II Violetta and Alfredo are shown living the permissive good life: Violetta, having it all, can continue to have vapid ‘joy’ as personal shopper Annina drops by regularly with bagfuls of Dior fabulousness, while Alfredo is independently wealthy and determined to live as a free spirit in the woods indefinitely. What patriarchal leverage Germont has here is unclear.

Irina Lungu and Claire Egan (right) © Ruth Walz
Irina Lungu and Claire Egan (right)
© Ruth Walz

Those woods fill out of the back of a bare stage and split the space into two symbolic areas, one standing for freedom and bliss in Alfredo and Violetta’s private Eden, the other a void in which they find themselves when separated. When happiness blooms the trees shift downstage; when all hope appears lost their gladed bolthole is obscured. Lurking amid the foliage is a man whom we are led to believe is one of Violetta’s suitors (although none Verdi wrote a part for; Warner has inserted this non-singing role, credited as ‘the man’, for actor Stephen Kennedy). In the ‘Brindisi’ he had been making awkward plays for Violetta, and is made out to represent the nothing-much-to-look-at, ‘safe’ choice she might be advised to make over Alfredo. He appears in three further guises: as the aforementioned Act II stalker; as a bull who must chase a gypsy dressed as Violetta in the matador scene, which made for one of those embarrassing moments when the actor loses their dignity rather than the character; and as a male nurse in a (literally) clinical take on the final scene – though honestly I think by this point the conceit had been dropped and he was just another supernumerary. Here it was too clumsy and confused to mean anything, but could the idea that Violetta might be ‘rescued’ by a ‘realistic’ partner perhaps go somewhere? I’m not sure. But given the obvious feminist objection and the dramaturgical unavoidability of Violetta’s death it would seem to have more of a natural home as one of many ideas in a properly deconstructive staging rather than this timid offering, which only ever looks uncomfortable in its vaguely contemporary skin.

As a festival production and second installment in a three-year build-up to next year’s Verdi anniversary, one might also have expected stronger things musically. Young Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu is a promising talent and I’ve heard him do well in roles big and small both at the Theater an der Wien and the Vienna Staatsoper, but in this performance Alfredo’s big phrases found him lacking in breath, and sustaining a line with his attractive lyrical tone was often shaky. Gabriele Viviani made a boomy first impression as Germont, but despite never really shifting out of a loud dynamic he gradually showed his tone to be more focused than might have registered in a bigger house, and his ‘Piangi, Piangi’ made for an affecting and even intimate moment, regardless of the volume. Omer Meir Wellber’s conducting I found rather anonymous, and among other things missing from the score Act I might have done with a little more lightness and spring in its step. The RSO Wien were of an adequate standard, with some good playing from the horns, but given the way this orchestra has come in the last couple of years, both in the concert hall and the pit, I was expecting more.

But ultimately La Traviata stands or falls on its lead, and though Irina Lungu is not one of those Violettas who can pull out a different voice for each act, the chips fell down as I generally prefer, strongest in Act II and the beginning of Act III, and weakest in Act I. At its robust but tremulous best her voice seems naturally to encompass the extremes of strength and vulnerability central to this role, and her poignant delivery of ‘Addio del passato’ was the musical highlight of the evening. Lungu is a young singer and less effortful fioritura in ‘Sempre libera’ may yet come, but for depth of characterization she already seems settled into the role.