A triumph in Aix-en-Provence

James InverneSun 17th July 2011

Natalie Dessay's first European Violetta reviewed


Readers of yesterday's blog will know that Aix festival director Bernard Foccroulle spoke of the event being about making connections between art forms, as between the past and the present. All of which was clearly in evidence in the stunning production of Verdi's La Traviata that I witnessed last night.

Yesterday morning a visit to the local Musée Granee here had yielded an insight into the vision of the great art collector Jean Planque – who had come to realise how, with some artists, one shouldn't look too specifically at the details or even think too literally. One should instead find the music in the textures. So it was with Jean-Francois Sivadier's staging of the Verdi.

A play-wthin-a-play framing might sound old hat, but we were in the dangerous world of Pirandello here, where staged action can suddenly become real for the performers and the edge between fiction and truth is knife edge-thin. So there were stage managers and lots of arranging of sets and so on. But there were broad subtexts (for some a dread word, I know, but it worked). The stage positions, the backdrops, these seemed all to be about public image – very effective for instance in the sunny blue-sky cloths that hung  above Alfredo's house in the second act, or when in the first Violetta suddenly broke free of her "scene" and marched to the "backstage" tables at the rear of the stage to down almost half a bottle of vodka. At her death, the company watched from the side, shocked yet rooted to the spot.

For Natalie Dessay's Violetta, I can only say that I doubt there has ever been a singer in this role (even Callas, whom I never saw) who was more shattering. She moved with an animal abandon yet a desperation for physical contact, whether rolling her head along Alfredo's arm or forcing herself into his father's embrace. Then, at the end, her energy totally left her as her Marilyn Monroe wig and stage make-up were removed for her and she was left, with barely the will to shake her head at a glass of water, spent. That her light, supple voice is not really one of nature's Violettas is in this rare case wholly irrelevant. She made it work.

Alongside her, Charles Castronovo was an ardent Alfredo, Ludovic Tézier a too young-looking but authoritive-sounding Germont. There was an attention-grabbing voice among the smaller roles too, in Andrea Mastroni's Marchese. Watch out for him.

As in the previous night's show, the London Symphony Orchestra were on top form, blending exquisite detail with true operatic punch. Their conductor Louis Langrée, in apparently his first Verdi opera, found darkness in the score without sacrificing elegance. A magnificent evening. Oh, and there's a good chance Virgin Classics will issue it on DVD, so watch this space.


James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company, Inverne Price Music Consultancy, writes a culture column for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper and his byline can still be found from time to time in other places about subjects that get him exercised.

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