Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - Opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Marlis Petersen (soprano); Flora, her friend - Kristina Antonie Fehrs (mezzo); Annina, her maid, Fran Lubahn - (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer - Giuseppe Varano (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - James Rutherford (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres – Taylan Memiogiu (tenor); Doctor Grenvil, Konstantin Sfiris (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta – Ivan Orescanin (baritone)
Graz Philharmonic Orchestra and Graz Opera Chorus/Tecwyn Evans
rec. live, Oper Graz, 2011
Staged and directed by Peter Konwitschny
Sets and costumes by Johannes Leiacker
Television Director, Myriam Hoyer
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. Dts-HD Master Audio 5.0. Picture format, 16/9. Resolution 1080i Full HD. All regions
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIC BLU-RAY 108036 [110:00 + 20:00 (bonus)]

Before considering this somewhat idiosyncratic production it is desirable to look back at the history of the work’s genesis and what the composer sought to achieve in the only really contemporary subject he ever composed. We’ll leave aside for the moment that while aiming to meet some of the criteria Verdi sought for his opera this recording also omits some of the music.
After Rigoletto, his fame assured, Verdi could, both artistically and financially have afforded to relax; his partner, later wife Giuseppina, appealed to him to do so. However, his artistic drive allowed no such luxury. During the composition of Il Trovatore in 1852 Verdi agreed to present an opera at Venice’s La Fenice in March of the following year, 1853. When he eventually agreed that the premiere of Il Trovatore would be in Rome it was delayed by the death of its librettist. The upshot was that at least the first act of La Traviata was composed contemporaneously with the later portions of Il Trovatore, the two operas being wholly different in musical mood, key register and period. To add to the pressures on Verdi, he ended up having only six weeks between the premieres of these two very different operas.
On one of his regular visits to Paris, where he could live openly with his partner Giuseppina, not yet his wife, Verdi saw and was impressed by Alexander Dumas’ semi-autobiographical play La Dame aux Caméllias, based on the novel of the same name. The subject appealed to him, but he recognised that it might encounter problems with the censors in Italy who would consider the story immoral. He was contracted to write an opera for the La Fenice theatre in Venice and even before the choice of subject was made it was decided that Piave, resident in the town was to be the librettist for the new opera. Verdi put off the choice of subject until the preceding autumn, constantly worrying the theatre about the suitability of the available singers. The theatre in turn wanted to get the censors’ approval of the subject to satisfy their own peace of mind. Piave produced at least one libretto that Verdi turned down before he finally settled on Dumas’s play. La Traviata was his 19th opera and the most contemporary subject he ever set, embattled as he constantly was by the restrictions of the censors. This tension was something that Puccini and the later verismo composers never had to face.
Having spent the winter worrying about the suitability of the soprano scheduled to sing the consumptive Violetta, Verdi was also upset that La Fenice decided to set his contemporary subject in an earlier period. This jeopardised the immediacy and relevance that he intended for the audience. Verdi was correct in worrying about the censors and the whole project was nearly called off when they objected. As to the singers, all went well at the start and at the end of act I, with its florid coloratura singing for the eponymous soprano. Verdi was called to the stage. The audience was less sympathetic to the portly soprano portraying a dying consumptive in the last act and laughed loudly. The tenor singing Alfredo was poor and the baritone Varesi, who had created both the roles of Macbeth and Rigoletto, considered Germont below his dignity and made little effort. Verdi himself considered the premiere a fiasco. He did, however, compliment the orchestra whose players had realised his beautifully expressive writing for strings, not least in the preludes to acts I (CH.1) and III (CH.32). Although other theatres wished to stage La Traviata, Verdi withdrew it until he was satisfied that any theatre concerned would cast the three principals, and particularly the soprano, for both vocal and acting ability. The administrator of Venice’s smaller, less prestigious San Benedetto theatre undertook to meet Verdi’s demands along with as many rehearsals as the composer wanted. They were also to present the opera with the same staging and costumes as at the La Fenice premiere. Verdi revised five numbers in the score and on 6 May 1854 La Traviata was, to Verdi’s delight, acclaimed with wild enthusiasm in the same city where it had earlier been a fiasco. All this whilst also using the same sets as at La Fenice.

Peter Konwitschny is renowned for his off-the-wall productions, updating being de rigueur. This production, his first ever of this opera, is given in the University Town of Graz, the second largest city in Austria after Vienna. Konwitschny goes even further than usual with the set. It consists simply of a chair with two lots of drawn curtains. Violetta moves behind the curtain from time to time to represent the passing phases of her life. There’s an ornate fireplace in the last scene such as might be found in a wealthy house in Verdi’s time (CH.41). I take this to represent Alfredo facing his future life as a young aristo, or whatever, maybe even back in the family home. The bonus of an interview with Konwitschny and the soprano lead might be better played before you watch.
Costumes are updated so that Violetta looks smart and attractive at her party in act I, ending up in the last act only in underskirt. In act one she semi ‘moons’ her party guests, semi because she is wearing brief briefs and suspenders. Crude! Alfredo appears in cardigan and spectacles looking like a nerd. Germont is tall and austere and comes complete with trilby, which he is a little late in removing after entering the lover’s house and meeting Violetta (CH.16). Germont has brought his young daughter with him and he drags her on as he tells Violetta about her restricted marriage prospects with Alfredo living with her. The daughter looks like her brother, complete with specs (CH.17). I have always understood the marriage of the daughter was held up because of Alfredo’s association with Violetta. If this girl is ready for conjugal responsibilities then paedophilia is a sub-plot I had never realised. Scene two of act II is a dramatic mess. The entertainment by the gypsies and their dance is cut and the scene ends with everybody lying on stage, Germont being the last to join them. The biting drama of that scene goes for nothing in this production. Altogether around thirteen minutes of music are cut including all second verses and also as Alfredo arrives in act three; again spoiling the impact Verdi builds into the scene. Gimmicks, such as the arrival of Alfredo and Germont via the stalls aisle in act three abound. In this case the latter is still wearing a party paper hat. This further demeans the poignancy of Violetta’s last moments.
La Traviata is recognised not merely as one of Verdi’s finest operas, but one of the lyric theatre’s greatest music dramas. Its vocal demands on the eponymous heroine are considerable and diverse across the three acts. The American diva Renée Fleming contends that Violetta is the perfect role in the entire soprano lexicon and that by which most sopranos have, historically, been measured. She suggests each act requires a different voice, passing from the coloratura of the first through the lyric emotion of the second to a more dramatic voice for the traumatic third act. Marlis Petersen is a very good actress, but vocally not in the international class. Her coloratura in the act I finale is sketchy (CHs.9-10) and she lacks the weight of tone, or the ideal variety of colour to bring off acts II and III. That being said, I would be happy paying to see and hear her in a provincial theatre. Giuseppe Varano as Alfredo has a light Italianate forward lyric tone, albeit a little dry, with adequate resources for the part. James Rutherford as Germont is dry-toned and unsteady. The lesser parts are well taken. The chorus sing with vibrancy and Tecwyn Evans on the rostrum does justice to Verdi’s creation.
Robert J Farr

With competition from the likes of Fleming and Gheorghiu, this unusual production and minimalist set is only for those who like their imagination challenged in the extreme and do not mind the cuts.