Saturday 28 September 2019

Verdi - La Traviata (Paris, 2019)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra National de Paris

Michele Mariotti, Simon Stone, Pretty Yende, Benjamin Bernheim, Jean-François Lapointe, Catherine Trottmann, Marion Lebègue, Julien Dran, Christian Helmer, Marc Labonnette, Thomas Dear, Luca Sannai, Enzo Coro, Olivier Ayault

Paris Cinema Live - 21 September 2019

La Traviata is a great opera and I've heard it and seen it enough times not to need reminded of that nor ever feel the need to rush out and see it again. Yet here I am again watching another production of La Traviata. Really though it's only when a director has no fresh ideas and isn't able to do much with the work, pitching it in a stuffy Belle Époque setting, that it can be a bit of a chore - and even then Verdi's music is always the saving grace. If you get a director who can show the modern relevance of the work, its humanistic outlook, its fire and sense of outrage at social conventions and conservative attitudes, well then La Traviata can still have the power to impress and bring you back to see it again.

So with it being the Paris Opera, with theatre, film and opera director Simon Stone at the helm and the chance to see a much talked about new soprano Pretty Yende singing the role of Violetta Valéry, for the first time in a long while I was actually quite looking forward to my one millionth (approximately) La Traviata. Undeterred by a strike at the Paris Opera cancelling the live performance, the Paris Opera falling back on a pre-recording made a few days ago and fortunate to have turned up early enough to not miss too much when the cinema got its European time zones wrong, it was certainly a La Traviata worth making the effort to see.

Timing evidently is everything, and the issues I had getting to see the cinema broadcast turned out to be appropriate since although it's by no means a major theme in the work, there is a pressing sense of time running down in La Traviata (something made explicit in the Willy Decker production). It's there as a consideration that becomes important to Violetta Valery as she realises that there's more to life than parties and admirers and that she should grasp the opportunity for true love and happiness for the brief moment that it is open to her when she meets Alfredo. Time however is not on her side as we of course - very quickly - find out.

Not only that but Verdi makes the pressing of time very much present in his music and in the pacing of the drama. Really we are only introduced to Violetta and Alfredo and they to each other to enjoy a brief blossoming of love in Act 1, only for it to rapidly vanish and become a victim of social and monetary pressures in Act 2. There are certainly other complex motivations - guilt, a sense of unworthiness perhaps, a consciousness of age difference - that drive Violetta to finish with Alfredo, but principally its pressure from the social gossip and reputation, and there's a simmering anger against those conventions and the underlying hipocrisy of it all the fuels La Traviata.

Director Simon Stone is very good at getting that fluid sense of time in his rotating stage for the Paris production at the Garnier. He's also good at bringing a modem sensibility - a conflicted and contrasted one - to the romantic ideal of Paris and high society in this production. Violetta Valéry is a model here, her image emblasoned on posters and video advertising hoardings for expensive perfume 'Villain'. Her image dominates the stage while the reality is of course not quite as perfect. All the trappings of the lifestyle are there of course and they are indeed trappings that it proves impossible to escape from.

So we see two sides to the glamour. The fancy night club against the more down-to-earth reality of Alfredo declaring his love for Violetta out in the back alley by the bins. A Paris sequare has a grand statue, while a drunk at the foot of the dais, and instead of the florid declarations of love, Alfredo and Violetta communicate via banal instant messages and emoticons as Violetta has an after-party kebab from a Turkish fast food stall, 'Paristanbul'. Then of course, there's the scandal that comes along with the glamour. Again updating events, Violetta is accused of dragging down the name of a Saudi royal family (presumably instead of an old-fashioned baron), the tickertape newspaper headlines updated for a digital world and spreading like wildfire. In that respect it shows that the pressures on famous women who don't behave according to expectations are arguably even greater now than in Verdi's time.

That of course is the important theme of the work and it's one that Stone is able to emphasise and show is still relevant at the same time as he is able to show the personal cost by dispensing with the fake Belle Époque glamour and mannerisms of a traditional production. Visually, it's just spectacular, images blown up on a huge digital screen backdrop, the stage rotating fluidly and impressively to keep sets changing, adding and accumulating a picture of Violetta's lifestyle, how she interacts with those around her and where the conflicts and problems arise within it. It perhaps tries a little too hard, when everything that is really essential is there in the music and can also be found in the performances, but it's an impressive spectacle nonetheless and an intelligent response to the work.

And as magnificent as the production looked, it was the musical and singing performances that contributed to the overall success of the production. The Paris Orchestra sounded terrific under Michele Mariotti's conducting, striking that beautiful balance that the work has between Verdi's lyrical flights and the underlying fury, capturing an Italianate view of Parisian glamour. The young South African soprano Pretty Yende secures her growing reputation here with a very memorable Violetta Valéry. Her singing and interpretation were superb, placing an individual stamp on the work, and her acting performance - so critical here amid the melodrama - was impressive.

Youth belying experience was also of benefit to Benjamin Bernheim's Alfredo, generating a passion with Yende's Violetta that felt real and sincere. Giorgio Germont can be a rather stuffy role just by its nature, and there wasn't much Jean-François Lapointe could do about that, but the role was well sung. Simon Stone's production might have drained a little of the heated melodrama out of La Traviata by undercutting the glamour at key points, but it was an approach that ultimately worked in favour of the work and did indeed leave the heavy lifting principally to Yende and Mariotti who, if the impact of the conclusion is anything to go by, were more than up to the task.

Links: Opéra National de Paris