Verdi (La) Traviata

Opera's latest golden partnership is challenged by less-hyped rivals

Author: 
Alan Blyth

Verdi (La) Traviata

  • (La) traviata
  • (La) traviata

Pier Luigi Pizzi’s updating of Traviata to occupied Paris, first seen in 2003 in Madrid, might seem gratuitous, but because of his skill as designer and his experience in directing singers, the new milieu hardly ever interferes, after the opening scene, with the central tragedy of Violetta’s plight. That owes much to the freshness and immediacy of Norah Amsellem. From Violetta’s first fevered entry to her agonising death, she is totally absorbed, acting and singing with the most eloquent feeling.

In the first scene we see her entering her soiree from her bedroom, the stage split in two – a slightly questionable idea – and she becomes infatuated with Alfredo in their Act 1 duet while on her lavish bed. It sounds gimmicky but as played by Amsellem and the sympathetic and stylishly sung Alfredo of Jose Bros it is totally convincing. The act ends with an all-consuming account of ‘Ah! fors e lui’, both verses, phrased with unerring conviction so that one forgives harshness when she presses on her higher notes.

Act 2 scene 1 is set in the drawing-room of a 1930s country villa. The encounter of Violetta and Germont pere is the emotional centre of the work, as it should be, with Amsellem and Renato Bruson acting and reacting to each other with rewarding rapport. Bruson, at 69, sings with all the experience of his years and few signs of wear, and follows it with a masterly account of ‘Di provenza’. In the second scene the whole company excels itself and the heroine is infinitely touching in ‘Alfredo, Alfredo’.

In a stark, simple set for Act 3, this Violetta conveys her sorrow and terrified thoughts with inward passion. ‘Addio del passato’, again two verses, is notable for the length of line and exquisite phrasing Amsellem provides. Her slim figure and expressive face are notable assets: she and Bros sing a near-ideal ‘Parigi, o cara’ before Violetta dies, a desperately tragic figure.

Lopez-Cobos conducts an interpretation notable for yielding support of his singers combined with dramatic dash, and the Madrid orchestra play as though their lives depended on the results. No wonder this staging has received so much praise in Spain. Its preservation on DVD is welcome.

Last year’s Salzburg production is a travesty – a hard-boiled, ridiculously over-disciplined Konzept by Willy Decker, all too typical of German direction today. Its worst aspects include the wilful inclusion of characters in scenes where they should be offstage. Much play is made of a Nemesis character not in the libretto, who turns out in the final act to be Dr Grenvil! A huge, ever-present clock face is one of the few props, and poor Violetta has to sing most of the last act on top of it – no sign of a bed, of course. The unrealistic treatment of the chorus only adds to a sense of detachment from the whole misconceived show.

Netrebko almost saves things by her affecting Violetta, although she has few of Amsellem’s nuances in her vocal armoury. Her voice fills the Grosses Festspielhaus with rich-hued, expressive sound. Villazon tends to over-sing and overact, so that Alfredo becomes almost psychotic (rehearsal scenes show him simply trying too hard). Hampson’s wooden Germont is a severe liability; there’s nothing of the rapport between him and Netrebko offered by Amsellem and Bruson. Stay with Madrid.

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