16 Nov 2008
La Traviata at the MET
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
That was the point of making the story into an opera in the first place. Serious, tragic operas were not, in those days, set in contemporary times, or among bourgeois persons. The management of La Fenice was sufficiently nervous to backdate the sets and costumes by a hundred years to the era of Manon Lescaut, but no one was fooled – everyone knew about Dumas’s recent, somewhat autobiographical hit novel and play, La Dame aux Camellias.
But more: La Traviata, for all its denunciation of hypocritical society, underlined a moral: once a woman had been around the block, she could never go home again, make a successful marriage, live happily ever after, become somebody’s mother, for heaven’s sake! It was important that this moral be made clear because, even back in 1853, everyone knew it wasn’t true – women of dubious reputation made prominent, respectable marriages all the time – even in Italy, never mind Paris. (For men with a past, of course, there had never been a problem.) In Italy, where divorce would not be an easy matter for another hundred years, marriages ended and divorced persons made alternative arrangements, accepted by their friends and families with greater or lesser indifference. Violetta simply had bad luck – and bad microbes. (Her original, Marie Duplessis, the high-class courtesan who discarded Dumas fils, wedded a nobleman but died of consumption at 23.)
The Met’s overcrowded Traviata has been touched up, polished and primed because Act II was telecast as part of the opening night Gala – but also to give a little more clarity to some of the muddier moments of the overblown Zeffirelli staging. There is a new conductor, Paolo Carignani, who leads a taut, lean performance without skimping on necessary sentiment – a waltz is a waltz is a waltz. His tempos are a bit frenetic in Act I – the singers seemed to find them too fast as well – but throughout the evening the climaxes evolved naturally from what had gone before, and no one was drowned out.
Anja Harteros is a tall, slim, handsome lady of aristocratic mien, appropriate to the Countess in Figaro, the role of her Met debut. In the party scene, where a tiara perches atop her dark curls, she resembles some frozen, forbidding royal of World War I vintage, which did not make for a sympathetic figure. I’d have liked her a lot more without the sparkles up top.
Her voice, when not warmed up, is harsh, even acid. In Act I she was not at all appealing, coloratura uneven, pitch sometimes off target, and her top capable of no optional high notes. She was not, in this scene, a Violetta, and it was unclear what role would be suitable – Lady Macbeth perhaps, where a large, ugly sound and uneven coloratura are excusable. But by Act II, she had calmed down – or the conductor was not pushing her so hard – and she made rich, creamy sounds, especially at “Più non esiste – or amo Alfredo” (an exquisite moment, and one that usually goes by unremarked). Her “Amami, Alfredo,” was capable but not demented – she is entirely too collected to play a woman losing emotional control. The last act was her best. The voice then revealed a sweetness when singing softly – it is the brilliance of the first act that escapes her, that hardens her sound.
A scene from Verdi's "La Traviata" with Anja Harteros as Violetta.
At least her height means she is one Violetta who does not look absurd beside the inevitable Baron Douphol of seven-foot-tall John Hancock, who has sung the part 36 times since this production premiered. Among other novelties this year: at curtain rise, he and Violetta were on the stairs, preparing to retire for a night’s romp, when their rowdy friends burst in, to his manifest annoyance. There is less picnicking on cushions in the opening scene than there used to be. But I miss the glove of challenge Hancock originally threw down to Alfredo at the end of Act II – the music expresses it, the era demands it, why has the Met deleted it? Do they think modern audiences would laugh? Would they? Would it matter?
The evening’s Alfredo, Massimo Giordano, is short, stocky, and not very handsome in the long “romantic” hairpiece that looked so good on Jonas Kaufmann. Giordano does not possess an instrument of exceptional beauty, but his instincts are musical; he does not bray and his high notes fill the room. He pays attention to the filigree in his cabaletta, and he launches himself into impassioned phrases with a nice sense of line. His finest moment – and Harteros’s – came during “Parigi, o cara,” sung caressingly, filling the house softly and accompanied tenderly – for a few minutes they were the perfect Alfredo and Violetta, singing to comfort each other, and we happened to overhear – a lovely bit of intimacy in this outsize occasion. (Harteros could use this voice for Lady M’s sleepwalk.)
Germont was Željko Lučić, who sang Macbeth last season: a real Verdi baritone, with a smooth, mellow sound as large as you could desire, and an actor’s judgment of the effect of each word. Most Germonts either stand stiffly or become excessively, even tearfully, sympathetic to the lady with a past whom they encounter in Act II; Lučić’s body language showed a provincial’s discomfort in this sophisticated milieu, and he had the grace to seem downright embarrassed at the sordid sacrifice he requested of her. A bit of a sob frilled each line of the second verse of “Di Provenza,” and I thought for a moment they might not cut his cabaletta. Cut it they did; the number is a pointless convenienze, but for once I wanted to keep it in, just to continue reveling in his sound. Ever-reliable Theodora Hanslowe sang Flora and Kathryn Day sounded clear as a bell in the usually fade-out role of Annina.
With Lučić as the thane, Harteros as his lady, Giordano as Macduff and lively Maestro Carignani urging the witches on, a potentially great cast for Macbeth currently holds the stage in the Met’s Traviata.