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30 Sep 2013

La Traviata, Hamburg

Johannes Erath's production of Verdi's La Traviata opened at the Staatsoper Hamburg in February this year, with Ailyn Perez in the title role. Perez returned with Stephen Costello as Alfredo for three performances in September 2013

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata, Hamburg State Opera

A review by Robert Hugill


I caught the third on 27 September 2013, with Alexandru Agache as Giorgio Germont and Rebecca Jo Loeb as Flora. The production was designed by Annette Kurz with costumes by Herbert Murauer. The conductor was Alexander Joel.

As we entered the auditorium the curtain was up and we saw a lone figure sitting on a huge bare stage, black walls, lighting rig visible. The figure started playing the accordion, two figures came on stage, Alfredo (Costello) and Annina (Ida Aldrian), she gave money to the accordionist (Jakob Neubauer) whilst Costello pulled the body of Violetta out of the ground and cradled it. At the conclusion of the prelude, the rear wall opened and the party guests were revealed, coming forward on a platform whilst Costello was still on stage. This was clearly a production which was understood to be happening in flashback.

There were a number of key elements which helped define Erath's dramaturgy. The first was the use of dodgems, these were lowered from the flies for the party scene in act one and the party took place in and around them. Dodgems were the only set, two remained on stage during the opening of act two, and the whole set of them returned for the party at Flora's. The other major element was a set of circus performers, all played by older actors, all in white whom only Violetta could see and whom we had to take as ghosts from her past. They reoccurred at key moments of the drama. Apart from the circus performers, all the cast were in modern dress.

The platform that I referred to earlier contained a revolve and Erath made a too frequent cliched use of it with much walking on the spot. But generally the visual style was very considered with movements and gestures being mirrored in the two party scenes; for example Costello laid Perez in one of the dodgems, in act one prior to an erotic encounter, in act three as she lay dying.

The problem was that Erath used these elements in rather too obvious a way. He clearly took a very particular view of the dramaturgy of the opera and wanted to ensure that we knew what to think. There was something heavy handed about the rather obvious way he martialled his forces to reinforce his ideas, such as bringing on the circus performers with monotonous regularity. For me, though, the main problem was the way that he tried to re-write the ending of the opera. During Addio del passato there was steady, slow progression of the circus performers with a second Violetta at the end. Perez greeted her doppelganger and whilst the second Violetta climbed into her grave, Perez removed her dress to reveal her white shift. She too had become a ghost and we were to understand that for much, but not all of the remainder of the act neither Alfredo nor his father could see her or interact with her. But not quite, as parts of Verdi's score almost forced them to interact. It was very much a cast of forcing the opera to fit a konzept and I could not help wishing that Erath had emulated a director like Peter Konwitschny who has no qualms at separating words and music.

LA TRAVIATA - Staatsoper Hamburg from Theater-TV on Vimeo.

There were odd details too. During act two scene one we saw Annina selling to Flora the dress that Violetta work in act one, and Flora wore it at her party. The entertainment at Flora's party was not Spanish, but a re-enactment of the story of Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio Germont. At the end of the previous scene, Agache had given his overcoat and hat to Perez, who appeared at Flora's party still wearing them.

The production worked because Perez gave a performance of such brilliance and intensity, clearly identifying with Erath's concept of Violetta. Perez is a lyric soprano and there were moments in act two scene two and in act three when having a more spinto voice would have been ideal, but this didn't matter because Perez used her resources superbly. Technically the end of act one was well done, but it never felt like a coloratura showpiece, Perez simply used the music to further the drama. Common to all her performance was a superb feeling for the line of Verdi's music, with Perez spinning out long phrases in a profoundly moving and expressive manner. She was able to thin her voice to the merest thread, but also revealed a surprisingly rich and warm depth to her voice at key moments. Unlike other lyric colorratura sopranos in the role, I was never aware of Perez managing her voice. Her identification was total and her performance simply mesmerising.

Stephen Costello was new to the production, but is Perez's husband in real life, and the two generated quite a remarkable buzz. Costello's voice is the sort of lyric tenor that might be termed useful. It lacks an Italianate ping but is evenly produced throughout the range and he sang intelligently and never grandstanded, If these virtues seem a little negative, it did mean that we appreciated his Alfredo rather than simply watching Stephen Costello. From the first moment his Alfredo was quite poised, having sex with one of Violetta's party guests and clearly a bit of a shit. This was no eager puppy and the relationship with Violetta, so serious in its intensity was clearly a surprise to both of them. He coped well with the extra drama required of him, the framing device so that we saw things in flash-back, and he cr dled the dummy body manfully during sections of the close opf act three. It says much of Costello and Perez's relationship that they could generate so much electricity during the Parigi o cara duet with him cradling a dummy and her sitting alone on a dodgem.

During Flora's party, Alfredo's treatment of Violetta was profoundly disturbing; Costello did not just throw money at Perex but launched himself at her and in a highly disturbing and rather extended scene, seemed to virtually kill her with Perez only reviving in time to join in the ensemble. For the remainder of the scene Perez was shunned by the party goers. The scene moved into act three without a break (the intermission was in the middle of act two), and the opening of act three seemed to explore Violetta's alienation rather than her illness. It seemed as if, in some way, Violetta died by Alfredo's hand during Flora's party.

Agache made a notable Giorgio Germont. His voice lacks something of the flexibility at the top of his range, and he was clearly making an effort not to simply bark the upper passages. But his stiff-backed, rigid Germont was a notable participant in the drama, unbending enough at the end of act two scene one to give Perez his coat for protection. His duet with Perez was another musico-dramatic highpoint of the evening.

The lack of a set seems to have caused acoustical problems, at least that is what I presume because all the principals had moments of tuning problems in some of Verdi's extended cantilena, because they could not hear the orchestra sufficiently.

Rebecca Jo Loeb was a fine Flora, gamely stripping down to her underwear during her party, and acting as the main focus of the drama during the dance sequence there. Ida Aldrian, a member of the Opera Studio, made a notable Annina, in this version participating far more in the drama than is usual.

Over the conducting of Alexander Joel I could wish I could draw a veil. His speeds were lively and his feelings for Verdi's music was clearly strong, but he seemed entirely unable to keep the stage in time with the pit in the bigger ensembles, something that happened not just once but repeatedly.

This was however, Perez and Costello's evening and whatever the drawbacks of the production I took away the amazing electricity and musicality of the performance

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Ailyn Perez: Violetta, Stephen Costello: Alfredo, Alexandru Agache: Giorgio Germont, Rebecca Jo Loeb: Flora, Ida Aldrian: Annina, Sergiu Saplacan: Gastone, Jan Buchwald: Douphol, Florian Spiess: D'Obigny, Levente Pall: Grenvil, Manuel Gunther: Giuseppe, Gheorghiu Vlad: Un domestico di Flora, Jakob Neubauer: Accordionist Johannes Erath: Director, Annette Kurz: Set Design, Herbert Murauer: Costume, Alexander Joel: Conductor. Staatsoper Hamburg, 27 September 2013.

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