16 Nov 2008
La Traviata at the MET
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
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.