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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
La Traviata –opera in three acts (1853, rev. 1854) [131.43]
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Violetta Valéry – Olga Peretyatko (soprano)
Alfredo Germont – Atalla Ayan (tenor)
Giorgio Germont – Simone Piazzola (baritone)
Barone Douphol – Tom Fox (baritone)
Flora Bervoix – Christina Daletska (mezzo-soprano)
Annina – Deniz Uzun (mezzo-soprano)
Baron Douphol – Tom Fox (baritone)
Marchese d’Obigny – Konstantin Wolff (bass)
Doctor Grenvil – Walter Fink (bass)
Flora’s servant – Raimonds Spogis (baritone)
Commissioner – Stefan Geyer (baritone)
Violetta double, trapeze artist – Susanne Preissler
Balthasar–Neumann–Chor /Detfel Bratschke (chorus master)
Balthasar–Neumann–Ensemble/Pablo Heras–Casado
Stage Director – Rolando Villazón
Set Design – Johannes Leiacker
Costume Design – Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting Design: Davy Cunningham
Choreography – Philippe Giraudeau
Video and TV director – Nele Münchmeyer
rec. live May 2015 Festspielhaus Baden–Baden Festival, Germany
Sound formats:
a) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1ch 48kHz
b) Stereo LPCM 2.0ch 48kHz/24 bit
Subtitle Languages: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Resolution 1080i – Filmed in High Definition from an HD source
C MAJOR 733804 Blu-ray [139.00]

Staged at the Baden–Baden Festival in 2015 director Rolando Villazón’s colourful circus themed production of the tragic love story La traviata received a mixed reception. Recently released on the C Major label this is the live performance of Villazon’s production on DVD/Blu-ray with Olga Peretyatko in the role of the troubled heroine Violetta and Atalla Ayan the jealous Alfredo.

A masterpiece, venerated by opera lovers, La Traviata 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.

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

It was at the Baden–Baden Festspielhaus in 2012 that Villazón directed L'Elisir d'Amore a production in which he also sang Nemorino. During his own singing career Villazon sang Alfredo to significant acclaim several times notably at New York Metropolitan (2004) and Salzburg Festival (2005), so it is not surprising he would relish the challenge of directing La Traviata back at the Festspielhaus, Baden–Baden at the 2015 Whitsun Festival.

In this production of La Traviata, rather than employ a traditional staging, Villazón relocates the ill-fated love affair between Violetta and Alfredo to a fantasy world of the circus. Villazón’s spectacular circus-themed vision is based inside the big-top of an animal-free circus. Colour and movement seem to be his primary areas of concern. Many of the cast seem to be gyrating their bodies at every opportunity and there is even a small troupe of tumblers. Villazón avoids going out to overtly shock and keeps his visualisation within the bounds of good taste. The opera commences prior to the orchestral prelude with a flashback as Olga Peretyatko, the desperately sick and coughing Violetta, falls to the floor at the front of the closed curtain. As if going back to her childhood while lying there she operates a child’s music box which emits a typically simple tune.

Johannes Leiacker’s set design makes an impact as soon as the curtain opens to reveal a scene that is one of the most dazzlingly colourful I have seen in an opera house. On the floor are circular platforms, with the predominant one no doubt representing the inside of a circus ring which is tilted slightly towards the front of the stage. A circular clock face, positioned on the floor, described as the “clock of life” moves forward relentlessly although it can barely be seen from the usual camera angle. Another curious idea is to have Violetta mirrored by another similarly dressed performer (played by Susanne Preissler) but with blonde hair, sat for much of the time on a trapeze suspended from the roof. I guess that this is intended to represent another personality of Violetta prior to her becoming a courtesan. This peculiar situation is especially marked in act 3 as Peretyatko’s Violetta lies dying and just a few feet away Alfredo is holding and comforting the blonde Violetta-double. The whole production looks and feels like a mixture of brainstormed ideas added onto a great tragic story. The costumes designed by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck are a cornucopia of styles and vivid colour. The cast are dressed using a diverse range of clothes, some noticeable as circus costumes, together with a smaller number of characters from history such as a Roman Centurion and what looks like a Soviet Commissar. For the scene of the party at Violetta’s salon a group wears black with hooded cloaks and masquerade masks.

Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko plays Violetta Valéry with her long black hair, displaying tattooed arms and wearing from start to finish an ivory coloured ballerina outfit. Getting off to a rather shaky start Peretyatko’s voice improves as the performance progresses. It can’t be easy to concentrate on the role with so many colourful stage distractions. Peretyatko’s bright voice is attractive at its best and she generally sings well with significant impact yet I am not fully convinced, as she only moderately engages with the emotional demands of the character. For example, in act 3 Peretyatko is unpersuasive as the dying Violetta, an impression certainly not helped by the ballerina outfit and full make-up. In the role of her lover Alfredo Germont, is dark haired Brazilian tenor, Atalla Ayan, who is seen decked out in either a black Astrakhan flock coat or a sparkly grey/blue jacket. Singing well with a fine technique and reasonable power Ayan doesn’t quite pull off the dramatic intensity the role demands.

As Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, baritone Simone Piazzola, dressed in a suit and cloak, is covered from head to foot in a spooky grey colour that creates a dull, lifeless pallor. In the role, Piazzola reveals his steady voice, reasonably expressive if lacking in vocal colour but overall it’s hard to find much warmth in the character. Dressed as a priest with black cassock Tom Fox takes the role of Barone Douphol. Reflecting the current trend for body art Fox’s shaven head is covered in tattoos, which makes Douphol a rather menacing presence. With her dark, waist-length hair tied-back, Christina Daletska in the role of Flora Bervoix is attired all in black in the manner of a ringmaster complete with boots and whip. As Gastone, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro wears a ludicrous black and white clown costume. The Balthasar–Neumann–Chor sound in fine form and well prepared too. Impressive is the pacing and overall control of conductor Pablo Heras–Casado and the Balthasar–Neumann–Ensemble respond well embracing the character of this Verdi masterwork.

No problems at all with the video direction of Nele Münchmeyer who keeps everything moving smoothly with camera work that maintains interest. Included are a number of shots of the audience and also the orchestra and conductor in the pit which all add to the live atmosphere. In the accompanying booklet there is a track listing, synopsis, an essay ‘La Traviata – a circus of delirium’ by Jan Eric Dörr translated into English and three black and white pictures from the production. Sadly there is no bonus content on the film such as directorial or cast interviews relating to the production.

What I consider to be the two finest competing versions of La traviata on DVD/Blu-ray both feature Angela Gheorghiu. Gheorghiu’s 1994 portrayal of Violetta in Richard Eyre’s polished Royal Opera House (ROH) staging has been captured for posterity on Decca. Gheorghiu has the distinct advantage of sterling support from Frank Lopardo (Alfredo) and Leo Nucci (Giorgio Germont). Fittingly it was the role of Violetta Valéry that propelled the Romanian soprano Gheorghiu to international stardom in 1994 with the BBC clearing the evening schedules to broadcast La traviata live from the ROH conducted by Sir Georg Solti. It’s hard to imagine a similar act of spontaneity by the BBC happening now. On Arthaus I relish equally the treasurable and powerfully charged live 2007 La Scala production of La traviata also starring Angela Gheorghiu. This is the Marina Bianchi revival of Liliana Cavani’s traditional production first staged back in 1990. At La Scala Gheorghiu is partnered by Ramón Vargas as Alfredo, while Roberto Frontali plays Giorgio Germont.

Released on C Major, Rolando Villazón’s circus-themed production of La Traviata does not appeal to my particular taste. Although enjoyable in parts it’s an interesting concept but much of the intense emotion is robbed from this tragic drama. Despite the directorial excesses the principals, cast and orchestra try their level best but too little dramatic inspiration is developed.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Dave Billinge



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