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 Verdi, La traviata: (New production) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Andrea Licata, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 12.9.2009 (GPu)

Conductor: Andrea Licata
Director: David McVicar
Designer: Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer: Andrew George
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

Violetta Valéry: Myrtò Papatanasiu
Alfredo Germont: Alfie Boe
Giorgio Germont: Dario Solari
Flora: Lousie Poole
Annina: Joanne Thomas
Baron Douphol: Eddie Wade
Marquis of Obigny: Philip Lloyd Evans
Doctor Grenvil: David Soar
Gaston: Howard Kirk
Giuseppe: Philip Pooley
Flora’s Servant: Laurence Cole
The Messenger: George Newton-Fitzgerald
Female Dancers: Jo Jeffries, Sophia McGregor, Nicki Munroe, Jenna Sloan
Male Actors/Dancers: Gordon Brandie, Henrik Jessen, Al Sill, Matthew Tilley, Paul Wood

Violetta Valéry: Myrtò Papatanasiu and Alfredo Germont: Alfie Boe

In May of 1856 an anonymous writer reviewed, in the pages of the Illustrated London News, the London premiere of Verdi’s opera in which the role of the heroine was sung by Marietta Piccolomini. He (it presumably was he) wrote that the role “embraces the most brilliant gaiety and the deepest pathos”. The same might (should) be said about the opera as a whole (though it is worth recalling that the 1856 reviewer could offer only the condescending judgement that La traviata was “the weakest, as it is the last, of [Verdi’s] numerous progeny. It has pretty tunes, for every Italian has, more or less, the gift of melody; but even the tunes are trite and common, bespeaking an exhausted invention, while there are no vestiges of the constructive skill – none of the masterly pieces of concerted music which we find in the Trovatore or Rigoletto”.

Most of us rate La traviata very differently nowadays; but I quote this Victorian reviewer for the sake of his comment on how the work “embraces the most brilliant gaiety and the deepest pathos”. Any decent production of the opera must reflect both of those dimensions of the work; by no means all productions do so as well as this by David McVicar, a co-production for Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona. Above all, McVicar’s production creates a sense of the simultaneity of the gaiety and pathos, of how the gaiety’s foundations are crumbling and hollow. It may not quite be the case that, to quote Waiting for Godot, these people “give birth astride a grave”, but certainly this is a society which (both literally and metaphorically) sings and dances on the grave. In preparation Verdia and Piave’s working title was Amor e morte, which had to be abandoned at the insistence of the Venetian censors. McVicar’s production certainly remembers, and gives its audience occasion to remember, that original title.

Before even the overture is played, we see the repossession men making an inventory of Violetta’s furniture and preparing to remove it; the orchestral prelude is accompanied by a broken Alfredo walking slowly across the front of the stage, only a gauze curtain separating him from the scene visible behind him. The main action of the opera takes place on a set which is largely surrounded by heavy black drapes and the floor of which is a huge gravestone of grey-black marble, cracked and worn, and inscribed (so far as I could see from my seat in the stalls) “Ici repose Violetta Val…”. The sense of where both pleasure and love will finish up, of how things will , undeniably end, is not something the audience is ever allowed to forget. It gives a poignancy to all that we hear and see, rather as Shakespeare achieves in Romeo and Juliet when he provides a Prologue which assures the audience that what they are about to see is a play which presents “the fearful passage of … death-marked love”. Updating the costumes to fin-de-siècle Paris increased the all-pervading sense of an approaching end.

The Act II Set

One or two reviews of the earlier Scottish Opera premiere of this production seemed to suggest that it was rather let down by some, at least, of its principal singers. No such complaints in Cardiff. As Violetta, the Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu made her British debut and made a very favourable impression. From the very beginning of Act I she commanded the stage, her manner throughout the opening minutes of the opera full of a vivacity which had just the right edge of desperation to it. In manner and voice alike Papatanasiu made very plausible the competing demands within her of pleasure and love; her slim good looks and her controlled power of voice, often very beautiful in tone, made Violetta’s magnetic attraction thoroughly believable. Papatanasiu has already sung the role of Violetta successfully in Rome (in a production by Zeffirelli) and she seemed to inhabit the character with absolute dramatic conviction, that made her performance genuinely moving. In Act I in particular, there were a few small technical issues, and ‘Sempre libera’ lacked absolute panache, but thereafter she was thoroughly persuasive. Alfie Boe’s rather smaller voice, and his far greater stiffness of stage manner, a manner which at times seemed decidedly inhibited alongside that of Papatanasiu, largely made dramatic sense. His Alfredo’s initial diffidence and awkwardness spoke of an innocence in vivid contrast to Violetta’s wealth of worldly experience – albeit that the dynamic of the opera’s myth requires that innocence should have things to teach experience. How far a certain suppressed quality in some of Boe’s singing was a device of characterisation wasn’t always clear to me; there were moments when he was decidedly underpowered. Boe has an attractive, lyrical voice and a persuasively Italianate tone, particularly in the middle range; but as yet, for all his musicality, the voice sometimes lacks the weight necessary to do full justice to a role such as this. The extent of his drunkenness in the Gambling Scene of Act II seemed to reinforce his (and McVicar’s) characterisation of an Alfredo too often too inhibited to express his feelings with directness without such an aid to expression and even in Act III there was perhaps an over-contained quality to his response to Violetta’s death.

Dario Solari was an impressive Germont père. He invested the role, vocally as well as gesturally, with an air of great authority, suggestive of a long history of the relationship between father and son. One felt that Alfredo’s unwilling inhibition clearly owed much to his father’s absolute control of his own emotions. This Alfredo was very much his father’s son. But for all his sternness of his characterisation, Solari found in Giorgio Germont a degree of humanity, of sympathy and of possible audience sympathy, that has escaped many an interpreter of the role. Such humanisation did much to complicate, very fruitfully, the emotional and moral texture of the work – and he was in splendid voice.

Louise Poole was a vigorous and forthright Flora, Eddie Wade a looming Baron Douphol, full of a lechery only barely covered by the impressive social exterior. The sense of corruption, of the superficiality of the would-be elegance in the party scenes, of that nearness of the grave and the forced nature of that “brilliant gaiety”, was conveyed superlatively in the excellent work of the chorus. Andrea Licata conducted with assurance, vitality and intelligent supportiveness, though I did just once or twice wonder whether things weren’t a fraction on the rushed side. But that is only a slight quibble and did little or nothing to detract from a very satisfying evening in the theatre.

This was a production which genuinely served the music and the text and deserves real praise for doing so with an intelligence which never became so ‘clever’ as to distract from the achievement of Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave; rather it illuminated that very achievement. Sometimes in Italian opera houses you hear cries not just of ‘bravo’ or ‘brava’ for particular singers, but of ‘Bravo Bellini’ or ‘Bravo Verdi’. That recognition of the primacy of the music and text, however much they need the interpretative skills of all those involved in putting the opera on the stage, is a healthy and necessary one. This first night made me want – without overlooking the work of anyone else involved - to shout ‘Bravo Verdi’ at its conclusion. The production made one recognise with renewed force how fine a work it is. La traviata is very far from being the product of “an exhausted invention” – if you, like the reviewer in the Illustrated London News are tempted to see it that way, I suggest that you get yourself a ticket for this production and be prepared to change your mind.

Glyn Pursglove

Pictures © Bill Cooper


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