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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La traviata - opera in three acts (1853, rev. 1854)
ERATO Blu-ray 2564 616647 [145.00]

Much loved, even venerated by opera lovers La Traviata (The fallen woman) is probably Verdi’s most popular opera although initially it was one of his few failures. The three act opera is set to Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto and based on the play La Dame aux camélias adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas jr. Verdi’s moving score contains all the elements necessary for operatic prominence. Set amid grand Parisian party scenes the scenario follows the most unsuitable and ill-fated liaison between the suave nobleman Alfredo Germont who is infatuated with the beautiful heroine Violetta Valéry, a courtesan dying from consumption. The only other substantial singing role is Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont.

Given the eternal popularity of Verdi’s score it is not surprising that many directors want to ‘freshen up’ the proceedings. In 2014 I had the misfortune to attend a dire production by the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater at Berlin. Director Peter Mussbach’s bewildering set required the audience to strain their eyes and patience watching the opera through hessian sacking which covered the whole of the front of the stage (the proscenium arch) including the orchestra pit across which video images, mainly lines, were occasionally shot.

There are several Blu-ray releases of La traviata in the catalogue. Probably the most distinguished is a Liliana Cavani production starring Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta live from La Scala in 2007 conducted by Lorin Maazel on Arthaus Musik. In 1994 it was the role of Violetta that propelled the Romanian soprano Gheorghiu to international stardom. The BBC cleared the evening schedules to broadcast La traviata live from Covent Garden conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca).

Here on Erato Blu-ray German soprano Diana Damrau excels in a committed performance as Violetta in a new production for Opéra national de Paris directed by French filmmaker Benoît Jacquot. It was filmed in June 2014 at the Opéra Bastille, Paris. In fact Damrau only started singing Violetta in 2013 with Willy Decker’s rejuvenated production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Jacquot sets La traviata firmly in mid-19th century Paris using rather spare sets compared to Gheorghiu’s 2007 production that utilises the whole Met stage packed with period scenery. Jacquot’s vision may leave considerable areas of the large Opéra Bastille stage unused but with the décor design by Sylvain Chauvelot and costumes by Christian Gasc it certainly doesn’t lack impact. Striking and no doubt satisfying to traditionalists are the elegant period-costumes. Set in Violetta’s Paris salon act 1 focuses on the large canopy bed which possesses a headboard decorated by a copy of Édouard Manet’s painting ‘Olympia’ of a reclining nude and black maid. Also present across the stage is a table with candelabra, a tête-à-tête sofa and dressing table. Behind the principals are the chorus, both men and women looking like undertakers as they gather in the gloom wearing black morning suits and ‘stove pipe’ top hats. They deserve resilience prizes having to stand for so long. Mirroring Manet’s ‘Olympia’ Violetta is attended by a black maid Annina played by Cornelia Oncioiu who is ‘blacked-up’ for the part. It seems incredible that we are still doing this today in the theatre.

The first scene of Act 2, set in the grounds of a country house outside Paris, centres around a wide girthed tree with a small bench nearby. In the second scene of Act 2 the party at Flora Bervoix’s mansion focuses on a magnificent period staircase and terrace filled with the chorus dressed in black trousers and skirts, matador hats and masks. Serving as a divertimento a gender-bending dance scene takes place at the bottom of the stairs with eight men, some with beards, dressed as female Flamenco dancers in striking gold and orange dresses and five women wearing men’s red and gold toreador outfits. Three women wearing masks of bulls' heads act out a rather tentative bull-fight with a black bull symbolically killed with red ribbons acting as spears. Following this, Alfredo and two friends gamble at a card table with a croupier decked out in a black and silver toreador’s outfit. Act 3 is set exclusively in Violetta’s bedroom centring on her small and practical sick-bed positioned at the side of the large canopy bed.

Robed throughout in beautiful gowns Damrau excelled in the role of Violetta Valéry. After a slightly uneven start the soprano soon got into her stride at one with this complex opera character. Pondering whether Alfredo is the one for her in ‘E' strano!... Ah, fors'e lui’ Damrau sings with a fluid, creamy tone and with her exciting coloratura makes light work of her sparkling cabaletta ‘Sempre libera’. Finest of all, the courtesan’s departure from life ‘Addio del passato’ is a highly affecting conclusion to a wonderful opera. Immaculately dressed Francesco Demuro makes a debonair Alfredo with a poised and extremely elegant voice to match. Joyous about his life with Violetta, in De' miei bollenti spiriti the Sardinia tenor displays a smooth voice with a noticeable if unobtrusive vibrato. Demuro lacks a degree of timbral variation and there is some slight unease when acting. With excellent stage presence and impeccably attired, Ludovic Tézier shines as Germont the father anguished about his son’s relationship with a society courtesan. The French baritone fares admirably in his air Pura siccome un angelo and later in Di Provenza il mar demonstrating his steady and reliable voice. Ideally Tézier could have brought a touch more humanity to the role. Satisfying is Francesco Ivan Ciampa’s conducting of the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris setting judicious tempi and dynamics that complement the stage action. Well drilled by chorus master Aleesandro di Stefano the Chœur de l’Opéra national de Paris deserves plaudits - they sing with unity and suitable expression.

Generally the video direction is excellent with experienced Benoît Jacquot employing his cameras actively and never admitting monotony or allowing the viewer to become fatigued. A single cause of irritation with Jacquot’s direction is the contrived camera view of the stage over the shoulder of a woman audience member sat in a box and seen at crucial points such as at the beginning and ends of the acts. Curiously, although audience applause could be heard throughout there are no camera shots of the audience which made me wonder if it was actually filmed live or at dress rehearsals; the accompanying notes don’t elucidate. No problems at all with the vividly clear sound quality — as excellent as I have come to expect from this source. The booklet contains a full cast and production listing together with a short synopsis but no track-details. These can however be obtained as an on-screen option.

My marginal preference is for Liliana Cavani’s traditional 2007 production. It features Angela Gheorghiu’s almost unrivalled performance. Nevertheless I can’t imagine too many people being disappointed by Jacquot’s new production but it’s the excellent performances from Damrau and her principals, chorus and orchestra that make this Erato release so desirable.

Michael Cookson

Performance & Disk details

Diana Damrau - Violetta; Francesco Demuro - Alfredo; Ludovic Tézier - Germont; Anna Pennisi - Flora; Cornelia Oncioiu - Annina; Gabriele Mangione - Gastone; Fabio Previati - Barone Douphol; Igor Gnidii - Marchese d’Obigny; Nicolas Testé - Dottor Grenvil)
Chœur de l’Opéra national de Paris,
Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris/Francesco Ivan Ciampa
rec. June 2014. A production of the Opéra national de Paris, Opéra Bastille, France
Video Direction: Louise Narboni, Benoît Jacquot
Director: Benoît Jacquot
Set design: Sylvain Chauvelot
Costumes: Christian Gasc
Lighting design: Andre Diot
Choreography: Philippe Giraudeau
Disc format 1 x BD50
Sound format: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz; LPCM 2.0ch 48kHz/16 bit
Video format: 1080i High Definition 16.9
Blu-ray disc designed for worldwide playback
Sung in Italian with on screen subtitles


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