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Recordings

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
25 Nov 2005

VERDI: La Traviata

Eight long and dark years later, La Fenice rose, once again, from the ashes following a devastating fire which destroyed the theater in 1996. For the “formal” re-opening of the refurbished Venetian landmark, its management wisely chose Verdi’s original score for his 1853 opera for La Fenice: La Traviata—another survivor that rose from the ashes.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Patrizia Ciofi, Roberto Saccà, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice, Lorin Maazel (cond.). Stage Director: Robert Carsen

TDK DV-OPLTLF [DVD]

 

The cast in this performance, recorded live on November 18, 2004, is as excellent as the names would indicate: Patrizia Ciofi, Roberto Saccà and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Hvorostovsky, who has been singing Germont since 2002, continues to surpass himself in this role every time one hears him. Though difficult to imagine Hvorostovsky as an elder man, he nonetheless gives credence to the role of Germont through his straightforward, yet elegant style of singing and acting. Hvorostvsky’s subtle coloring of his voice, his innate sense of drama and musicianship give him the edge over any other baritone available–be he younger or older. In Act II, when Germont confronts Violetta, Hvorostovsky is vocally stern without being offensive to his son’s mistress, and later in the scene when Germont lets his guard down, the singer is able to project a comforting fatherly image to the woman who is “the ruin” of Alfredo and his family. Not one to ever have been an overly dramatic actor, Hvorostovsky is blessed with a voice overflowing with sentiment and emotion, which does all the acting for the singer, and which caresses the listener’s ears like silk on bare flesh. In “Di Provenza, il mar, il suol/The sea and soil of Provence...” rather than taking the usual admonishing tone, Hvorostovsky sings the aria as one would imagine Verdi wrote it: a plea from a desperate father caught within the social restrictions of the times. Here is a man who sets his pride aside to deal directly with a woman from a lower social status than his, and later to beg his son to remember his responsibility to his family and his social position.

Highly acclaimed as one of Europe’s rising lyric tenors, Roberto Saccà, is an effective interpreter whose voice is sincere, gentle, and with a likeable timbre. In the “Brindisi” Saccà sings effortlessly, as well as in Act II “De’ miei bollenti spiriti/My passionate spirit...” and “Oh mio rimorso/Oh! My remorse!” and with vigor when necessary as in “Questa donna conoscete/Do you know this woman?”

Saccà is also a good actor and, in spite of some of the awkward stage directions, he easily followed the story line: at times infatuated and immature, at times in love, at times hurt and vengeful, and in general portraying Alfredo as the young man he is, in reality (though Saccà looks a bit older).

Patrizia Ciofi is deserving of every accolade. Here is one singer who has matured into one of the most capable artists of her generation. Her acting is as superb and believable in all the key scenes in the opera, but in particular, the prelude, where she appears to be re-living distant memories; in Act II Scene I in the exchange with Germont, and later in Scene II with Alfredo. Act III is a tour de force, and a challenge Ciofi welcomes. From the opening bars, where she is groveling on the floor, to “Tenenste la promessa...Addio del passato/You kept your promise...Farewell to by gone days...,” to the final moments of the opera Ciofi is the consummate singing actress, never once stepping out of character even in the most florid moments; never once betraying the singing for dramatic effect, but always in unison. Throughout the opera Ciofi says more with one raised eyebrow, than others in two hours of singing. Luckily, Ciofi is blessed with striking looks, and a figure which would be the envy of many a teenager–and in this production, good looks are as necessary as the singer’s qualifications, if not more. Ciofi’s singing is even more impressive. Her coloratura in the first act is flawless, as is her dramatic and lyric renditions in the subsequent acts. Ciofi’s interaction with Germont has all the right dramatic touches; indignant at first when he accuses her of taking Alfredo’s money, and lady like with a touch of pride when she demonstrates that it is Alfredo who has lived off her generosity; fearful when Germont asks her for a “sacrifice.” Ciofi displays the right amount of drama in “Amami Alfredo.” She sings the line as though she were living the moment, with conviction and without exaggerated overtones.

The supporting cast is very ably sung, too, and Lorin Maazel clearly knows the score.

Much has been written on the fiasco that was the opera on opening night, March 6, 1853, and the reasons for the failure: contemporary sets and costumes, a heavy set soprano, a hoarse tenor, and a baritone, unhappy with the small size of his role. Verdi wrote to Ricordi, warning him about the failure of the opera, “...I can’t conceal the truth from you. Traviata was a fiasco...,” and to Angelo Mariani, “...what is worse, they laughed.” The reviews were not so pessimistic. One reviewer had some small praise, but refused any details until he heard a completely well sung performance. Another, Tommaso Locatelli, went on to say, that Verdi had been called out several times and that the soprano, Salvini, “ravished the public.”

The opera is supposed to have been a success the following season when it was given in a revised version at the San Benedetto in Venice. The cuts Verdi made to the score, and to the libretto did not constitute major, or drastic changes to justify the success of the revised work, versus the failure of the original score. In fact the cuts to the original score are minimal, which is almost indistinguishable form the revised version.

Whatever the truth about the premiere of the opera, one thing is true: Verdi’s attraction to Dumas’ play, La Dame aux Camélias, was more than theatrical interest, it was also very personal. The composer had been involved as early as 1849 with a woman who had two illegitimate children; she had been the mistress of the manager at La Scala, among others, and society would never welcome her for she was considered “undesirable.”

The play, La dame aux camellias, is based on Dumas’ novel by the same name, which in turn, was based on the author’s ill fated relationship with Alphonsine Marie Duplessis, a well known Parisian courtesan. In the play, Dumas fictionalizes his infatuation with Duplessies who died at age twenty three, and who in real life was an arrogant, and self serving liar, and turns her into the loving, self sacrificing Marguerite Gautier. It is possible that Verdi, by now openly living with Giuseppina Strepponi, had known of Duplessis or had at least seen the play while in Paris in 1852. In either case, Verdi jumped at the chance to set the story to music, and Piave faithfully followed the action and prose of the play in his libretto, with the exception of unnecessary scenes and characters.

Verdi’s living arrangements were too close to the play’s theme for comfort. Nevertheless, he wanted to present Traviata as a contemporary story and in contemporary dress. It is “a subject of the times.” The composer wrote to his friend Cesare de Sanctis on January 1, 1853. Verdi, not one to shy away from a strong, if controversial plot, continues, “Others would not have done it because of the conventions, the epoch and for a thousand other stupid scruples.” La dame aux camellias gave the composer the ideal vehicle to ridicule the double standard set up by the very people in the higher echelons of society, who, like the members of the Jockey Club in Paris, would have affairs behind closed doors but at the same time chastise their victims, or those who chose not to follow the strict rules of convention. More importantly for Verdi, the opera would give him a direct opportunity to protest the treatment Strepponi and he, had received, in particular from the small minded people in Busetto where Verdi and Strepponi lived. Even Verdi’s benefactor, and one time father in law, Antonio Barezzi, wrote to the composer regarding his living arrangements with Strepponi—reminiscent of Germont’s Act II scene with Alfredo.

In a long and detailed letter Verdi wrote back from Paris on January 21, 1852 “... you live in a neighborhood that has the bad habit of frequently butting into other people’s affairs and disapproving of everything that doesn’t square with its own way of looking at things. I am not accustomed to interfere in other people’s business, unless I am asked to, because I demand that no one interfere in mine. Hence the gossip, the grumbling prattle, the disapproval...What harm is it if I keep apart, if I see fit not to visit titled people?...I have nothing to hide. In my house there lives a free, independent lady who loves seclusion as I do, and possesses a fortune...Neither she nor I owe any accounts of our action to anyone...Indeed, I tell you that in my house she is paid the same or rather greater respect than I am, and no one is allowed to fail in that regard for any reason whatsoever, and finally, she has every right to it, as much for her dignity as for her intelligence and her unfailing graciousness to others...I demand my freedom of action, because all people have a right to it and because my whole being rebels against conforming to other people...”

Traviata is not biographical as some have suggested. However, Verdi could not have escaped seeing himself in Dumas, and more importantly, seeing Strepponi in the principal character of the opera, the composer gave Violetta sublime, sympathetic music. With a libretto that closely followed the play, Verdi was able to maintain the sense of intimacy, and pathos in the story, while giving prominence to Violetta’s (ie: Strepponi’s) good nature, her worthiness, and her redemption.

Verdi sets it up musically: in the first act, the ever-present dance music symbolizing the carefree courtesan lifestyle, is always one step, or more, removed from Violetta, indicating that she is not a part of the demi-monde as appearances would indicate. Violetta does not initiate, but rather steps in and out of the musical situations. During the “Brindisi,” Violetta joins Alfredo in alternating stanzas, “Tra voi saprò dividere.../With you I would share my days of happiness...,” as a way of conveying that she is in agreement. Violetta is also saying that she does, or could, have feelings for him—or at least for what Alfredo represents: stability of affection, and social respectability. Further in the scene, the frivolous dance music in the background stops as though indicating that the rest of the party is as interested as Violetta is in hearing Alfredo tell her that he has been in love with her “Ah si, da un anno/For one year.” For Violetta, this break in the music is symbolic of her detachment from the demi-monde, and her determination to escape that lifestyle. The spell is not broken until Gastone walks in on them, “Ebben, che diavol fate?/Well, what the devil are you up to?” and the frivolous music starts where it had left off, before. Still, she hopes, and gives Alfredo a flower to return when it has faded. “È strano, è strano... Ah, fors’è lui.../Strange...those words are carved in my heart...Perhaps this is the man...” with its melancholy line is Violetta’s acknowledgment of her true feelings. This is her longed for opportunity to love, to be loved, and to escape a situation which is contrary to what she wants for herself, but for whatever reason, she has to endure. Violetta vacillates between her supposed life course as a courtesan and her wish to love and be deeply loved. In Violetta’s case, as with most human beings in the same situation, she seemingly dismisses Alfredo, but his off stage song, momentarily, brings her back to face her demons, and her love for him. Violetta vacillates once more, and she appears to have resigned herself to her destiny as a courtesan, “Follie! Follie!.../It is madness....” On face value, this is Violetta’s rebuttal to her inner feelings and to Alfredo’s love, but in truth the aria has a subtle air of nervous energy about it which confirms Violetta’s subconscious acceptance that she has fallen “in love.”

There is no dance music in the first scene of Act II, further cementing her detachment from her previous life. In Act II, scene II, Violetta is never the originator, nor a participant, as the dance music and the dance sequence take place before Violetta’s arrival at the party. In Act III Violetta is completely detached from her previous lifestyle. Upon hearing the carefree singing coming in through the windows, and not recognizing it, she asks whether it is a festive day, to which Annina replies, that all of Paris has gone mad, it is Carnival. Violetta, by this point is so far removed from her previous life style that the music does not stir any longing in her.

This new production at La Fenice, by the otherwise talented, Canadian, Robert Carson, is a misguided attempt to follow Verdi’s original intentions: “A subject of the times.” It appears the production team has used Marie Duplessies, instead of Verdi’s inspiration, Marguerite Gautier, as the basis for the production, and making this Violetta not a likeable character. In spite of its air of glamour, and public spectacle, Verdi created a very intimate work, a chamber piece to be savored by the audience through their participation and association with Violetta, instead of disdain or detached observation. Verdi’s music imbues the character with pathos, melancholy and sincerity which are at odds with the character in this production. This Violetta, unlike the character in the play, and Verdi’s opera, is bent on self-destruction, greed, avarice, and one is happy to be rid of her.

Judging from the costumes and hair design, the action could take place any time between the 60s to the present. When the curtain rises during the overture, Violetta, wearing black bra and panties, is in her studio apartment, with a king-sized bed (Carsen’s obsession) in the middle-back of the room. There is an image of trees in the background, and sparse furnishings scattered about. Several men come in and hand her money, as though in payment for her sexual favors–a metaphor for her profession? Are the trees a possible metaphor for her life? This would be over-stating the obvious, with one objection: Violetta is not a call girl, but a courtesan (mistress), and there is a difference between the two. In order to make the story more contemporary, this production uses oversized, one dollar bills to demonstrate the “evil” of wealth, and indirectly, transferring the action from Paris to the U.S.A. Does this mean that prostitution, wealth and corruption only exists in the U.S.A. and does not exist in Europe, or that Verdi, too, was evil? After all, it is the composer’s face, instead of George Washington’s, which appears on the paper money being flung all over the stage. One wonders why Mr. Carson, a Canadian, did not use the image of his country’s currency. Perhaps he did not want to insult his countrymen, just as he did not want to further insult La Fenice’s audience dressed in French and Italian couture, and who paid up to the equivalent of $1,200 per seat, by using the image of the European Union’s currency, the Euro.

As the opera progresses people, some dressed in “sloppy chic,” barge into the room. Alfredo, a photography aficionado, casually dressed in black jeans, black shirt, and black leather jacket with a camera dangling from his neck (Is wearing all black still considered “chic,” and who goes to a party with a camera?), accompanies himself at the piano during the “Brindisi” (Does the score call for a piano?). Later Alfredo cries out his love for Violetta, and magically produces several extra large (16" x 24") photos that he has taken of her, in Garbo-like poses. Violetta, a heroin junkie, obsessed, too, with these photos, is undecided as to what Alfredo’s attention can mean, and after further evidence that she is greedy, selfish, immature and self-centered, the scene ends with Baron Duphol, a sexually repressed Mafioso, who has returned to the room after the guests parted, “buying” once again Violetta’s favors.

Ignoring some of the lines in the libretto, and the action in the story, Act II, Scene I, takes place in a forest, or what could be the gardens of Violetta’s country house. The scenery consists entirely of the image of the trees from Act I. Dollar bills falling like leaves cover the ground six inches deep (Does Mr. Carsen not realize Violetta has sold her carriages and horses to make ends meet? And what is it with these trees, perhaps a metaphor for the evil in Violetta’s life and her inevitable end?) . Since there is no furniture, or a place to sit, the singers have no choice but to spend an inordinate amount of time between lying on the floor and getting up.

Alfredo, wearing the same clothing as in the party scene three months prior, and the ever present camera hanging from his neck, sings “De’ miei bollenti spiriti/My passionate spirit...” rolling on the floor, or on his back. Heartless Germont, looking more like body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger, is so delighted that Violetta has given up on Alfredo, that he offers her money in reward for her sacrifice. How convenient, too, that Violetta thought of bringing her expense account, her reading material, and her writing supplies and “ball point” pen with her, just in case she needed to prove her worthiness, hide an invitation, or write a “Dear John” letter to her unsuspecting lover. A further, not so obvious connection to Marie Duplessis is the use of her favorite novel, Manon Lescaut, as a prop (Violetta puts the invitation to Flora’s party in the book). Coincidentally, Alfredo is also engrossed in this book and he proceeds to read it while his father, Germont, pours his heart out to his son in, “Dunque invano trovato t’avrò?/Then I have found you in vain?” and before Alfredo catches a glimpse of the invitation, revealing where Violetta is going to be that evening. Without a break between the two scenes, the scenery begins to change as Alfredo runs off stage in search of Violetta. A stage rolls out, a mirror ball from the Disco days of “Studio 54" drops from the ceiling, the guests start bringing in furniture and Germont is left standing there as Flora’s party begins.

At Flora’s house there is a stage in the middle of the room. The curtain opens to reveal, the image of trees, and, not the Spanish dancers/gypsies as the music indicates, but gold lamé clad Las Vegas cowgirls and cowboys wearing lamé vests and chaps over unrealistically padded crotches. The choreography is just as passé with superfluous hip grinding, and cheesy sexual connotations such as the cowboys humping the cowgirls. Later in the same act, during Alfredo’s most dramatic moment in the scene, “Ogni suo aver tal femmina/For me this woman lost all she possessed...,” the same curtain magically opens in time for Germont, to make, what was intended to be a grand, dramatic entrance through the stage, and admonish his son for his rude behavior “Di sprezzo degno/A man who offends a woman...” In effect, Germont’s entrance turned out to be ridiculously comical as though he were Moses who had come to part the Red Sea of sinners in the room.

Act III reveals Violetta’s apartment, which appears to be in the midst of being redecorated; there is scaffolding in the back of the room, with white curtains behind it. Next to the scaffolding there is a piece of furniture covered in plastic; nearby on the floor there is a television monitor, indicating that Violetta fell asleep and forgot to turn it off. To the right, there are saw horses with a temporary table top holding endless containers of paint. Could it be that the ever fashion conscious, social climbing, consumptive woman is spending money she does not have redecorating her flat? Or, is this another metaphor to indicate that someone else in the same profession will, soon, occupy the same room–thereby implying what little value there is in being a kept woman? Let the viewer decide.

Meanwhile, Violetta, destitute, has no bed, and is sleeping on the floor wearing a simple black slip and her black patent leather, ankle strapped, six inch stiletto heels; she has nothing to shield her from the cold except her mink coat. Dr. Grenvil, once again, injects Violetta with a drug, (heroin?) which later when the revelers sing “Largo al quadrupede/Make way for the quadruped...,” induces her to hallucinate them marching into the room and tearing down the white curtain in the back of the room, to reveal, for a fourth time, the image of the trees now torn as an indication of Violetta’s demise.

But all is well that ends well. Alfredo, now a respectable member of society and dressed in the appropriate pin striped suit, just like his father, returns to take Violetta away from Paris; Germont also returns to ask forgiveness, but Violetta pays for her evil ways and dies of consumption. Annina, who up to this moment had been the dutiful maid, but now tired of being at the mercy of this thankless sinner, takes revenge by stealing the mink coat as soon as Violetta expires. To add a touch of irony, the workmen, completely ignoring the dramatic situation playing out in front of them, arrive to finish painting the room and to hang wallpaper.

Too bad Violetta did not live to see the finished product.

The lighting in this production, meant to emphasize the dark side of prostitution is not effective, either. The people on stage are, at times, in half shadows on one side, with harsh, bright lights on the other, producing unflattering visuals and making the production look cheap. Some of this could be the fault of the film director. At times, there are some unflattering close-ups. Why these and other shots were not edited is anyone’s guess.

Of course, none of this would have been an issue had the production team not taken Verdi’s comment, “A subject of the times,” quite literally, instead of how Verdi meant it: a mirror to his personal ordeals at the time, in 1853. True, the story reflects an important facet of today, but prostitution, social mores, and the difference between the classes will continue to be a point of difference among humans, as it has been since man first walked the earth. This does not mean that La Traviata, or any opera, should not be presented in an updated version. What it means is that productions should not introduce a multitude of unnecessary elements which distract the viewer away from the music and the drama being played out on the stage and orchestra pit. A production should reflect what the librettist and the composer intended, instead of a projection of the production team’s notion of the opera; a work which tells more about them than the work they are given to produce.

To paraphrase Martin Bernheimer, “The innovators obviously did not care to brush up their [Dumas], much less their [Verdi].”

Luckily the DVD offers an option for sound only, and this is the real merit of this DVD: the singers are at their best, as is the orchestra, chorus, and the conductor.


Daniel Pardo 2005

Production Information:

Violetta Valéry Patrizia Ciofi
Alfredo Germont Roberto Saccà
Giorgio Germont Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Flora Bervoix Eufemia Tufano
Annina Elisabetta Martorana
Gastone Salvatore Cordella
Il barone Duphol Andrea Porta
Il dottore Grenvil Federico Sacchi
Il marchese d’Obigny Vito Priante
Giuseppe Luca Favaron
Un domestico Salvatore Giacalone
Un commissionario Antonio Casagrande
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice, Chorus Master: Pietro Monti
Conductor, Lorin Maazel
Directed for stage by Robert Carsen
Sets & Costumes: Patrick Kinmonth
Dramatic Advisor: Ian Burton
Choreography: Philippe Giraudeau
Lighting Design: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Directed for TV and Video by Patrizia Carmine

Sources:

Verdi: the man in his letters
Franz Werfel and Paul Stefan
© 1942 L. B. Fischer Publishing Corp.
Renewal Copyright © 1970 by Anna Mahler
Vienna House, New York

The Opera News Book of “Traviata”
Edited by Frank Merkling

© 1970 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.
Dodd, Mead & Company, New York

The Complete Operas of Verdi
© 1969 Charles Osborne

1973 Pan Books Ltd., London
A Book of Operas
Henry Edward Krehbiel
© 1937 The Macmillan Co., New York

Financial Times
Martin Bernheimer
© November 16, 2005
FT.com

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