Thursday 9 July 2015

Verdi - La Traviata (Glyndebourne, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Glyndebourne, 2014

Mark Elder, Tom Cairns, Venera Gimadieva, Michael Fabiano, Tassis Christoyannis, Olivier Dunn, Eddie Wade, Hanna Hipp, Emanuele d’Aguanno, Graeme Broadbent

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

While there has been no lessening whatsoever of the high production values at Glyndebourne in its 80th year, I'm detecting a little more of a back to basics approach in the new productions for 2014. Der Rosenkavalier was anything but traditional in its impressive and beautiful set designs, but Richard Jones didn't take any real liberties with the actual concept or characterisation, or provide any new insights either. Despite the controversy in the casting, it was actually a fairly safe production. You could say the same about the new Glyndebourne production of La Traviata.

Even just putting on Verdi's La Traviata can be seen as a safe choice, but that's only the case if it's smothered in conventional stuffy Parisian Belle Epoque décor. Hildegard Bechtler's set designs do well to avoid such trappings without losing any of the glamour and sophistication that we associate with the work's location and settings. The set and costume designs are smart, elegant and eye-catching, the stage immaculately lit and coloured. It has the virtue of being ever so tastefully modern and stylish without being tied to any specific period. It's updated, but not in any way that is going to frighten anyone with a more traditional taste in opera productions. As a production designed moreover to be toured after its Glyndebourne début, all these considerations are important.

Safe is also how you would describe Tom Cairns' direction. There's nothing in the least bit radical attempted here. There's none of Andrea Breth's Salò references, none of Willy Decker's elegant modernisms, none of the stripped back to the bone minimalism of Peter Konwitschny, and none of the nudity that is fashionable to apply even to this work nowadays. The fading glamour of the courtesan is maintained in Glyndebourne's production, without highlighting or emphasising any of the harsh realities of prostitution, the social attitudes towards sexually liberated women, and without dwelling on the grim reality of Violetta Valéry's decline, illness and death. There are a few swoons and falls, but all within the romanticism of operatic heroines dying from consumption. None of the characterisation deviates from the well-established depiction we have of these characters.

And why should it? Arguably, Verdi's remarkable music - the composer in the full-flower of his genius here - carries everything that is necessary, expresses everything that he couldn't explicitly place on the stage. Mark Elder, conducting the London Philharmonic, matches the elegance of the production and it's delicately and sensitively performed with true dramatic drive, but there's just not enough of the Verdian passion in this supreme example of the composer's craft. This is a hugely dynamic work that is all about passion and death, from the first stirrings of love to full-blown ecstasy, running through fear, betrayal and jealousy in Violetta's rapid decline into delirium and death. It's a beautiful production, consistent of purpose and design, and it's wonderfully played, but there's very little sense of the full sweep of Verdi on the stage or from the pit.

If there's one aspect where Glyndebourne play less safe and take something of a chance, it's in the casting. Like their Der Rosenkavalier, the names are not the obvious ones or even familiar ones, but the performance of the principals was nonetheless exceptionally good. First and foremost is Venera Gimadieva's Violetta. A star at the Bolshoi, this is an impressive introduction for the young soprano at Glyndebourne. She doesn't have a big soprano voice and it's not a showy star performance, but Gimadieva sings the role beautifully and looks wonderful. It's not a nuanced performance by any means, her presence is a little cold and she lacks the kind of complete absorption in the role that a more experienced soprano can bring to it, but that could be down to the fact that the solidly traditional characterisation gives her nothing new to bring out of the role either.

The same can be said for Michael Fabiano. His Alfredo is beautifully sung in a distinctive and modern tenor voice, and competently performed in a way that makes his character's behaviour totally credible. But it is also totally familiar, with no real insight or exploration of the character at all. Tassis Christoyannis similarly gives a good performance as an otherwise bland Giorgio Germont - a character who can be used much more creatively and explosively than he is here. The other roles all contribute well to the ensemble, although Hanna Hipp doesn't seem quite right for the role of Flora. As an ensemble piece however, this production, safe and consistent as it is, serves as a solid, reliable and enjoyable reminder that, no matter how often you hear it, La Traviata is one of opera's greatest works. In comparison to some rather more adventurous recent productions that have explored its passions with rather more vigour, the Glyndebourne is however just a little bit dull.

Glyndebourne's colourful productions always look fantastic in High Definition and La Traviata is no exception.  The detail is all there in the richly detailed and dark bold colouration of the filmed performance, and the musical tracks are well defined. There are a few informative extra features including an interview with Mark Elder and the cast that considers the attraction of La Traviata and what makes it great.  Another feature looks at the costume, set designs and choreography for this production.  The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.