Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata
Weiner Staatsoper, 2014
Myung-Whun Chung, Jean-François Sivadier, Ermonela Jaho, Saimir Pirgu, Vitalij Bilyy, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Donna Ellen, Carlos Osuna, David Pershall, Hans Peter Kammerer, Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 16 December 2014
There are many considerations that determine the quality of a production of an opera, and the most successful are usually those where all the elements come together well and support each other. La Traviata is no different, but with a work of this stature and of such widespread popularity and familiarity, some elements are more important than others. Whether it's done period traditional or modern abstract doesn't matter as long as the production delivers the very specific requirements of the tragi-romantic nature of the work and Verdi's venomous critique of society. La Traviata however also needs a very strong singer with personality, charisma and the ability to deliver on all points of an intense, dramatic and challenging lead role.
In terms of the staging of the work and the casting of it, the Vienna State Opera production is strong and consistent, but it also recognises the importance of light and shade, the dynamic and the use of contrast that highlights the considerable qualities of La Traviata. That's evident in Myung-Whun Chung's conducting of the orchestra and management of the singers, but it's most notably brought out in the contrast between the two central figures in the work, Violetta and Alfredo. Ermonela Jaho and Saimir Pirgu complement each other well, and it's the character of their on-stage relationship in this revival of the production that determines the overall tone of the work much more so than any other factor.
For her part, Ermonela Jaho brings a surprising theatricality to Act I's Violetta, but it soon becomes clear that this is part of the concept and the characterisation that is part of the dynamic of the whole. If she swaggers around her party like Carmen in Act I, it's because it is an act on the part of Violetta. Moments before, during the overture, we've seen her sitting silently and resignedly with Annina, pulling herself together to get though the evening social functions and conventions (complete with Brindisi) that are expected of her as a host. Something however takes her by surprise this evening and knocks the carefully composed assurance out of her - Alfredo. Her guard drops and Jaho likewise takes us superbly through those swoops of fears and emotions, with light high notes and swooping plunges in her 'Ah fors' è lui'.
Saimir Pirgu's Alfredo is, as you would ideally like him to be at this stage of the work, not the thundering confident tenor that you are accustomed to in a less well-characterised production, but a bit of a soft, love-sick puppy. Pirgu sings his Brindisi like he was indeed performing to a handful of guests, not to a huge auditorium. He doesn't want to disturb others outside or wake anyone up, not that there's any danger of the audience falling asleep in this production. His Alfredo gains more confidence through the love of Violetta in Act II. There's clearly more of a man here - a man in love perhaps for the first time. That of course later turns to steely anger with a drunken swagger at the end of Act II, but throughout, Pirgu's voice still exhibits the underlying delicacy of the emotions Alfredo is experiencing.
The course of emotions that characterise this as one of Verdi's most brilliant and accomplished works is similarly held in perfect balance and contrast throughout, while the production supports those highs and lows. It's hard to determine exactly what the staging for Jean-François Sivadier's direction is meant to represent, but there's no question it fully matches Verdi's intentions and brings considerable colour to the characters. It's not period, more modern, but without introducing anything more jarring to the familiar viewing of the work than a pistol. For me, the staging had something of the feel of a theatrical rehearsal with chairs and a couple of banner-size screens scattered around. Instead of servants, Violetta and Flora have what look more like stage-hands, who help guide the 'actors' through their roles.
The playing of roles is something that is very much a part of La Traviata, and in that respect, Sivadier's direction retains the vital social context of the work. With Alfredo, Violetta sees a chance to break away from the empty life she has led as a courtesan in high society and live a more free life, but obviously society won't let her. Judging by Verdi's own life and his scoring for this work, that's where the force of the work lies, and that accordingly and absolutely correctly is where this production places its strength and its forces. The money shot, so to speak, is in Alfredo's public denunciation of Violetta at Flora's party in Act II, Scene II. It's always a telling moment in any production of La Traviata, and here, despite the anger and violence shown, Alfredo attempts to claw Violetta back, pawing over her prone figure more in pained desperation than anger.
Such moments reveal the consideration of the direction for characterisation and the strength of the individual performances. And in La Traviata, it all comes back to Violetta, and in this case to Ermonela Jaho. The production mirrors her experience, the theatricality dropping, the backgrounds stripped away, leaving a bare wall and a bare stage, with even the scrawled graffiti on the wall erased. Violetta is divested of her outer garments by her maid Annina as Act II slips over into Act III. Everything is gone, only the approach of death remains. Jaho's performance is exemplary throughout, but also personal and distinctive, working with the production, never to some ideal of Violetta. She does the joy and the heartbreak equally well, and as you would expect after all that, the death scene (all of Act III basically) is just gripping, the audience totally there with Violetta, which is a tough place to be.
Conductor Myung-Whun Chung plays to the respective strengths of Verdi's score, the production and the singers. The tempo is slightly slower than usual in Act I, allowing the beauty to be drawn out of every note, and it by the same token 'Ah dite alla giovine' becomes almost a funeral march as Violetta's hopes are crushed by Giorgio Germont (Vitalij Bilyy fine but not particularly distinctive, and unable to make much of an impression alongside Jaho's reactions to his demands). At times, you can see that the conductor is taking his cue from Jaho, allowing her to determine the pace she delivers her 'Ah fors' è lui'. Elsewhere, he holds back on the sweeping string arrangements and allows other individual instruments to carry the emotional weight very effectively with a delicacy of touch. Whether this was the same in the house and a question of mixing for the webcast, I couldn't say for sure though.
There were no big gestures then from the conductor, the orchestra, the singers or the production design aspects, and no attempt to impose any reinterpretation on the work. The Wiener Staatsoper's production was rather a concerted effort to capture the essence of what La Traviata is about, without all the mannerisms but with a few telling touches in all the right places that work with Verdi's music and its intentions. When all that is in place, you can see why La Traviata remains one of the best and most popular works of opera ever composed.
This performance was streamed for live broadcast only. There is however another chance to see the same production from the Wiener Staatsoper on 21 March 2015, but with a different cast. Dan Ettinger conducting, Marina Rebeka plays Violetta, with Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio. Details of how to sign up for Vienna Live at Home broadcasts can be found in the links below. There's an impressive line-up to be viewed over the next month, with DIE FLEDERMAUS on 31st Dec, DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE on 4th Jan, David McVicar's production of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on 18th Jan and SALOME on 23rd Jan.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video