Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata
Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2013
Daniele Gatti, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Diana Damrau, Piotr Beczala, Željko Lučić, Giuseppina Piconti, Mara Zampieri, Antonio Corianò, Roberto Accurso, Andrea Porta, Antrea Mastroni
ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - 7th December 2013
Unsurprisingly, the opening night of the new season at La Scala was marked by controversy and the making of political statements. Not much changes then at the home of Italian opera, and even if much of the furore is unwarranted and probably manufactured, it's good to see an opera house being the place to air such passions. One would think that there was at least surely nothing to complain about in the choice of Verdi or in the superlative performance of La Traviata for the 7th December season opening night, but it seems that some people at La Scala would boo an empty stage.
The first political statement was of course made even before the evening began, and even before Daniele Gatti's call for a show of respect for the death of Nelson Mandela was met by a spontaneous round of applause rather than the expected minute's silence. It was the political choice of a Verdi opera to open the season, following the controversy of the year beginning with the other two-hundred year old birthday boy Richard Wagner, and the nationalistic approval of the choice was greeted with cries of 'Viva Verdi!' as the lights went down.
If the choice of Verdi seemed designed to appease the more vocal of the boorish loggionisti, the choice of director Dmitri Tcherniakov to mess with the maestro was almost certainly a move calculated to create controversy and generate headlines. Inevitably, despite this production of La Traviata being one of the director's most restrained, respectful and considered efforts, the headlines were indeed captured by a small group of idiots who were clearly intent on booing whatever the outcome. This resulted in Piotr Beczala vowing never to return to La Scala after the appalling behaviour of the audience, and Diana Damrau's Facebook page doing their best to distance the soprano from any controversy by noting that she was engaged to perform long before any production team was in place.
Was there any need for this? No, of course not. Any reasonable opera-goer would be floored by a La Traviata as good as this and be hard pressed to find any serious cause for complaint in either the cast, the performances or the staging. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a better account of Verdi's masterpiece played anywhere in the world today. You're certainly not going to hear a Violetta Valery as good as Diana Damrau, and she was in superb form here, her singing not just flawless in terms of technique, but passionate, sensitive and dynamic in response to the drama. Damrau is one of the best sopranos in the world, but even she can't carry an opera on her own, and the supporting work and the direction all came together to make her performance shine all the brighter.
In terms of the production design, Tcherniakov is clearly aware that an opera like La Traviata doesn't need any 'concept' attached, and it doesn't have any weaknesses that need covered-over or updated. On the contrary, Tcherniakov's apparent hands-off approach actually went the opposite way as if to point out that the work is so strong that it doesn't need anything but the most basic of settings. It doesn't need the traditional elaborate costumes and plush interiors to depict the drama and the tragedy of human love, it just needs singers of great ability and attention paid to the dramatic tone. If you think a performance as good as this happens all by itself in a way that works seamlessly with all the other dramatic and performing elements, then you're seriously underestimating the role and the ability of the director.
I'll leave assessment of the interior design and the costumes to the fashion critics, and if you want to look for some of the director's more eccentric touches there may be something of a theme with dolls and angels, but however he did it, Tcherniakov's attention was clearly on matching the drama to the wealth of emotions and passions that are there in Verdi's extraordinary score. The most evident departures from the stage directions for example are in the gypsy entertainments at the start of Act II, Scene 2, where the director brings Alfredo in early and has the party songs directed at him as if they mean something. They don't quite match, and Alfredo looks rightly disconcerted here, as if everyone knows something about him and isn't letting him in on the joke - which in a way is true - but Willy Decker's production (seen most recently at the Met) plays on the same idea and does it much better.
The second part of Act II of La Traviata is indeed where all sorts of undercurrents and passions are expressed, words are spoken out of place and actions are misinterpreted and Tcherniakov managed to capture the unsettling quality of this key act in the above scene (one too often thrown-away or even, in more extreme cases, even cut), but he maintains the tension elsewhere in this scene in a variety of ways. The lights go out in an unsettling way a couple of times when Violetta arrives and when she steps forward to ponder the situation with Alfredo. It's difficult to find any more violent way of depicting Alfredo's public pay-back repudiation of Violetta than is already there in Verdi's music, but Tcherniakov convincingly shows an understanding Violetta attempting a conciliatory gesture, and the harsh dismissive gesture of Alfredo to an act of kindness makes this scene even more striking here.
Tcherniakov knows he can make this work because he has such a great cast who can not only sing well, but can act well enough to express the complicated mix of conflicting emotions that are at the heart of the work. Damrau commands the mixed emotions of every aria and cabaletta of every scene, from her impressive 'È strano ...sempre libera' that expresses childish excitement developing into rapturous joy tinged by fear and anxiety, through her fearful defiance and heroic capitulation to Giorgio Germont in Act II, to a simply stunning summation of the joy of living the moment of death in 'Addio del passato'. Surely one of the most challenging roles in the soprano repertoire, there are many who can do Violetta well, but few who can make this kind of impression and at the same time make the role entirely their own.
Alfredo can often be a thankless role, particularly if not given the same kind of attention by a director, but Tcherniakov would seem to have some sympathy for the character and his flaws and Piotr Beczala bravely (and thanklessly) puts all those characteristic out there on display. Alfredo is a bit wishy-washy at the start, and even with the Brindisi, Beczala seems only adequate to the role. Act II, Scene 1 is there for Alfredo's taking and the Polish tenor really develops into character here in such a way that his instability later in the Act becomes fascinating for how he deals with it. The potency of the characterisation and the manner in which in works with Damrau's Violetta makes the reappearance of Alfredo in Act III a moment of almost heart-stopping intensity. That's how it should be, it should set up the tragic conclusion to arrive with no sentimentality and no regrets, and this one is devastatingly good.