Sunday, 12 August 2018

Verdi - La Traviata (Den Norske, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Den Norske, 2018

Julia Jones, Tatjana Gürbaca, Aurelia Florian, Matteo Lippi, Yngve Søberg, Caroline Wettergreen, Martin Hatlo, Jens-Erik Aasbø, Johanne Højlund, Rolf Conrad, Eivind Kandal, Pietro Simone, Ole Jørgen Kristiansen


I imagine I'm not the only person to get jaded and avoidant of La Traviata, particularly when it's performed in sanitised Belle Époque period. If you've been listening to a lot of early Verdi in the meantime however - which we've had more of an opportunity to explore in recent years - it is interesting to come back to La Traviata and see it in a context that highlights the level of mastery and developing maturity Verdi had reached. At this stage in his career, Verdi is a musician in complete control of the musical and dramatic expression of his medium, pouring all those considerable forces into a subject that he clearly feels strongly about. There's no two ways about it, La Traviata is a remarkable work, a superb example of craft and passion, and perhaps even genius.

While you might have endured numerous stuffy and unimaginative copy-cat productions - which it has to be said are still capable of delivering a devastating emotional impact - there have been other more adventurous productions of La Traviata willing to explore the work's themes further, testifying to the strength of the musical and structural composition and the presence of universal and contemporary themes within it. The need to fit into a social milieu, society's insatiable hunger for gossip and scandal, and the question of women's rights and the cruelty of their treatment is ever more important in our own times.

Other than it being in modern dress in a very stripped back minimalist set, the Den Norske production directed by Tatjana Gürbaca doesn't initially appear to have much more to add to these themes other than emphasis in certain places. This director however was capable of using selective emphasis well in a similarly minimalist production of Parsifal for Antwerp, so there is some promise of looking at La Traviata afresh. There's a silent pantomime during the overture, with men dropping trousers during Violetta's wild party, Alfredo is there in casual dress in contrast to the other formally-dressed guests, Violetta and her maid Annina collect money out of the pockets of the stupefied drunk revellers, but there's not really much here to make anything new of the run though the Brindisi, the 'Sempre libera' etc. It's admirable, but uninspiring.

All this takes place on a platform stage on top of the theatre stage with little in the way of props, and by removing the accoutrements the work is able to work purely on an emotional plane and move swiftly onto Act II with barely a pause. Alfredo brushing away the debris from the party becomes then another way of showing the two of them wanting to make a 'clean sweep' of the past, even as their old friends look on from the sidelines, sceptical and delighting in the unfortunate turns that prevent the wayward couple thinking that they can exist and succeed outside of the orbit of social expectation and its approval.

There are other hints why society's conventions and expectations might drag them down, and they could strike you as a little jarring as this act and the rest of the opera progresses. Alfredo is unexpectedly physically rough with Violetta's maid Annina, but that could be seen as foreshadowing his later abusive treatment of Violetta at Flora's party and hint at an underlying distasteful attitude towards women in general. That is somewhat over-emphasised by the Matador song at Flora's party, which may well be a display of machismo, but using it as an excuse for the guests to physically maul Violetta feels uncomfortable and doesn't seem merited by the situation, particularly as everyone is later appalled at Alfredo's unacceptable behaviour towards her. Outwardly at least.

A similar kind of discrepancy between outward polite behaviours really hiding less pleasant or perhaps just old-fashioned attitudes towards women is not unexpectedly also brought out in the behaviour of Giorgio Germont. During 'Pura siccome un angelo' his daughter is present on the stage, which isn't new, but there's an interesting spin here in how Germont's pleading to Violetta to step aside for the sake of his daughter is played as his daughter taking her place, to be stripped and abused by society. This and a whole family gathering gets across much better the idea of the perpetuation of attitudes towards women and of the hypocrisy that underlies them. By Act III, the stage has fractured, Violetta largely alone on an island of the stage. Violetta's efforts to resist the tide of social attitudes and achieve happiness is doomed to failure and her sacrifice is played up as a kind of martyrdom, which to a large extent it is intended to be.

Such ideas are good at relating the sentiments and the gender politics of the work to the present, but musically there's less room for invention and interpretation under the musical direction of Julia Jones. The effectiveness of Verdi's composition is plainly evident however in how this gains force as the opera progresses. The flow of the work in that regard is impressive here and the singing is effective. Aurelia Florian is challenged by the extravagant high notes and coloratura, but builds on the character of Violetta, as you have no option but follow her course, and she does carry a strong emotional expressiveness throughout. Matteo Lippi is likewise very expressive in the romantic Italianate style that you would expect for Alfredo. Some interesting ideas and meaningful emphasis is applied here in the Den Norske production and Verdi's masterpiece is undeniable, but I don't feel I need to hear La Traviata again for another while yet.

Links: Den Norske Opera, OperaVision