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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata
(original version of the premiere at La Fenice, 6 March 1853).
Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) Violetta Valéry; Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) Giorgio Germont; Roberto Saccà (tenor) Alfredo Germont; Eufemia Tufamo (mezzo) Flora Bervoix; Elisabetta Martorana (soprano) Annina; Salvatore Cordella (tenor) Gastone; Andrea Porta (baritone) Baron Douphol; Federico Sacchi (bass) Doctor Grenvil; Vito Priante (baritone) d'Obigny; Luca Favaron (tenor) Giuseppe
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice/Lorin Maazel.
rec. live at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 18 November 2004.
Director Robert Carsen.
TDK DV-OPLTLF [146'00]

Thought-provoking and excellent just about sums up this Traviata, heard in the original 1853 version to mark the re-opening of the Teatro La Fenice in 2004. Robert Carsen's take on the Traviata story may shock. It centres around the corrupting power of money, which seem to be everywhere even on the forest floor. Seen in this way, Traviata emerges almost as a pre-echo of Berg's Lulu. And very disturbing it becomes.

The delicate string strains of the Act 1 Prelude accompany a languorous Violetta in a quasi-Ann Summers see-through number on a dimly-lit green bed. A man brings her money - introducing its importance in the action - paying her, presumably, for 'services rendered'. He is followed by a procession of men, all of whom hand her a wad of cash. Throughout, Violetta exudes a sort of desolate sadness, as if prefiguring the last act.

Suddenly we are in a party, but this is not a bright, glittering affair. Like some dingy speak-easy, this is a crowded set, costumes seemingly dating from the 1970s. We become aware of Violetta's admirer, Alfredo, who, dressed in black leather jacket, photographs her obsessively, like some paparazzo.

Whether or not a piano works as an accompaniment to the 'Libiamo', Alfredo sings it well enough. To the orchestral introduction a white grand piano is wheeled on, at which Alfredo pretends to accompany himself. Roberto Saccà is no Domingo, being several steps down on the sheer volume and character front. Amusingly, Violetta lands up sprawled over the piano lid, Michelle Pfeiffer-like - in 'The Fabulous Baker Boys', that is yes, that scene but with onlookers this time. The ensuing Violetta-Alfredo duet, after the exeunt of the chorus, is simply superb. 'Un dì felice' (Saccà) is wonderfully tender, as Alfredo reveals a full portfolio of Violetta pics. Ciofi's pitching in her retorts is beyond criticism.

The silence after the chorus departs is deafening 'È strano' is set into stratospheric relief, and Ciofi rises to the challenge as few others. Her emotions are utterly believable, while technically she is stunning. Importantly, she sustains the melodic line through the silences at 'Ah forsè liu', making it very, very touching. Singing vocal roulades lying on one's side cannot be an easy task but it clearly poses Ciofi no problems. Given the opening of this staging, no surprise perhaps to see hard cash making an appearance at 'Gioir' ... in both hands, then scattered to the winds. Alfredo's off-stage contributions are massively interruptive - as indeed they should be. They shatter her illusions and prompt a heartfelt 'Folie' and, finally, recourse to the amnesiac qualities of loveless sex.

Act 2 is supposed to be set in 'a room of the ground floor of a house outside Paris'. Here however it takes place outside, leaves on the floor being provided by bank notes - continuing the thread of this production. When left alone, Saccà reveals how his voice is best suited to the lyrical line. Act 2 Scene 1 is Annina's chance to shine, and indeed Elisabetta Martorana shows herself a singer of much strength.

Violetta's casual entrance - shades, light summer dress - is suave in the extreme; the same cannot be said for Germont père, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, looking awkward in tailored suit, immaculate tie and NHS specs; the latter no doubt unintentional. His acting is as starched as his shirt, yet it is the sheer beauty of his voice that enables forgiveness. His aria, 'Pura siccome un angelo' is close to great singing, his legato a joy to experience. Interestingly, his later 'Piangi, piangi' is almost injected with evil intent, yet his 'Di Provenza il mar' actually sounds rather wooden - it does open out, in fairness.

The second scene of this act is set at Flora's party. Of course this is depicted as debauched, as was the case in Act 1's hedonistic activities. It is as great a contrast to Act 2 Scene 1 as can be imagined. Glittering and green, this is clearly a nightclub of some sort, with suspended glitterball and 'gypsy' girls that are clearly dancers in a strip joint. Very well they dance, too, earning their money - which is pinned to them in traditional fashion when they scatter in amongst the audience/punters. The 'Matadors of Madrid' - here cowboys from the Wild West - probably can be taken more seriously if one hasn't seen the film, 'The Full Monty'. A compère appears to initiate their story. The girls' imitation of bulls is worth the price of the DVD alone and didn't you just know one of the cowboys' guns was going to have its phallic nature made explicit? Again using stark contrast to fullest effect, the Alfredo/Violetta scene works superbly. Ciofi is fantastic here. The more one watches, the more the whole setting emerges as rich, rewarding and challenging.

Perhaps the bare squalor of the setting of the final act should come as no surprise after the preceding. We are shown Violetta as the strings begin their halo of sound, followed by a montage of memories, over which rains money. On the floor of her flat, a TV shows only static, constant and devoid of meaning. The space itself is like a Manhattan loft flat that has been voided of any semblance of human warmth, a deconstructed shell of an abode, perhaps mirroring Violetta's state at this point. Violetta herself lies on the floor in convulsions, enshrouded in black, almost as if in drug withdrawal. Her voice when she sings is pure with little vibrato; Federico Sacchi's Doctor is, by contrast, firm and sure. Ciofi's reading of the letter is simply superb, her cry of 'E tardi' desperate, her 'Addio del passato' infinitely touching. The duet with Alfredo ('Parigi, o cara') is gorgeous on the ear. The couple's shadows are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage; the final death is lit starkly. There is no escape.

A simply fantastic DVD.

Colin Clarke



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