Sunday, 16 October 2011

La Traviata at the Wiener Staatsoper




Wiener Staatsoper, 09/11/2011

La traviata (new production)

Natalie Dessay | Violetta Valéry
Charles Castronovo | Alfredo Germont
Fabio Capitanucci | Giorgio Germont
Zoryana Kushpler | Flora Bervoix
Donna Ellen | Annina
Carlos Osuna | Gastone
Clemens Unterreiner | Barone Douphol
Il Hong | Marchese d'Obigny
Dan Paul Dumitrescu | Dottore Grenvil


Bertrand de Billy | Conductor
Jean-François Sivadier | Director


Jean-François Sivadier is, relatively speaking, the most technically competent French director Dominique Meyer has inflicted on the Staatsoper over the last twelve months. He fills a bare stage with action from beginning to end and it’s not unremittingly exasperating to watch or choreographically inept. That isn’t to say his efforts beyond this are any good – they generally aren’t – but there’s enough flexibility for a Violetta with initiative to dispense with the distractions and salvage some of the human drama, which is to say, disappointedly, that the best hope for this production is for the action to hew more closely to the text. Natalie Dessay, despite her reputation as a singing actress, is not that Violetta.


I’ll come to her shortly. Let’s get the heavy-handed symbolism and other absurdities out of the way first. I think Violetta taking off her shoes was supposed to mean something, though she removed the damn things so often it’s hard to say what. In Act III a chandelier is lowered to the floor for her to play with and look balefully at – ‘take not the pretty crystal away!’ – as it’s clumsily winched back up (see above left). And there’s a lot of falling down for a cast which hasn’t been to stage fall school. The chorus drop like flies in ‘Di sprezzo degno, se stesso rendo’, presumably because this opera is too little-known for Act III to be intelligible without signposting. More egregiously, Annina has the mother of all pratfalls a split second before Violetta’s final collapse.

Equally strange was Sivadier’s on-and-off Theater im Theater goings on. It says a lot about its impact that this critic assumed the opera was staged in a Bohème garret, and apart from Violetta putting on a show at the beginning and removing her wig at the end, its presence doesn’t really register. A panicked stagehand runs vigorously around the stage during Sempre libera, clearing chairs from Violetta’s path as if they were landmines, but this wasn’t Theater im Theater so much as another moment of oddness.

Sivadier was clearly after an emotionally unstable Violetta, but the jumble of moods separated out into contradictions – loose, chaste, capricious, devoted, extroverted, melancholic, self-assured, vulnerable, responsible, unhinged – that were too stark and numerous for Dessay to manage. The effect was aggressively episodic, like one of those drama school flashcard exercises where students improvise a range of emotional states, quick-fire. Charles Castronovo and Fabio Capitanucci didn’t get anywhere near this amount of fussy attention, their blocking stiff and characters kept simple, but were generally more watchable for it. Castronovo’s Alfredo could have easily been a cardboard cut-out performance with a lot of park and bark, but there was something strangely compelling about the acting. Even the lack of eye contact with Violetta during ‘Un dì, felice, eterea’ didn’t seem so unusual. Fabio Capitanucci’s Germont is a good guy caught between a rock and a hard place and while the not-so-fresh reappraisal is somewhat belaboured, there’s a focus to the direction missing elsewhere.

Nobody was expecting colour and body to Natalie Dessay’s tone and for the Viennese it seemed enough that her voice didn’t sound too thin and small for the role. But while her dynamic range may have surprised, there were control problems. Volume would wax and wane erratically: certain phrases flickered in and out of life while sustaining a note sometimes sounded like the beginnings of the Doppler effect. Coloratura was spotless but rather laboured, and phrases occasionally came out breathy and unfocused. Most of the performance was fine, with plenty of the clarity Dessay is known for, but there were enough of these lapses for it never to feel truly secure.

Charles Castronovo produced a well-controlled, even tone which was JDF-like in quality, only slightly more intense and a size bigger. He’s a solid Alfredo, but like his acting it’s a fine performance limited by lack of imagination. Fabio Capitanucci’s baritone isn’t so rich or distinctive, but vocally there weren’t any problems and he was convincingly stern towards Alfredo and sympathetic towards Violetta. All the minor roles were fine, though for some reason Grenvil was the only one who got any stage time.

Bertrand de Billy got good sound and secure playing from the Staatsopernorchester, even if the well-intentioned and admirably executed job of keeping them down for Dessay was ultimately unnecessary, and only created different balance problems – I don’t mean to sound like a Goldilocks, but when only Violetta and the cellos & basses are audible, the sparseness is weird. There was no trace of sentiment to the score, which was to be expected, and it wasn’t at all driven, which is unusual for de Billy. On paper this may seem promising but the playing rarely sounded more than workmanlike and dry. The chorus was very good, though men more so than women (the gypsy chorus sounded strangely muffled, it should be added, at de Billy's behest).

This was an inauspicious start to the second year of the Meyer administration. Three performances remain before the new production returns in May with a different cast.












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