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A scene from Act I of <em>La Traviata</em> [Photo by Darja Štravs Tisu courtesy of Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana]
15 Dec 2014

La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia

Small country, small opera house — big ensemble spirit. Internationally acclaimed soprano Natalia Ushakova steps in for indisposed local Violetta with mixed results.

La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia

A review by Jonathan Sutherland

Above: A scene from Act I of La Traviata [Photo by Darja Štravs Tisu courtesy of Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana]


After a series of directional disasters throughout the Balkans, it was refreshing to find a production which was neither ridiculous, irrelevant or doggedly self-serving. Director Lutz Hochstraate and set designer Rudolf Rischer combined to make a credible interpretation of this overly familiar opera which has certainly suffered more than its fair share of production atrocities. Huge floor to ceiling doors worked well to delineate different scenes and provide multiple entry points for soloists and chorus. Set properties were minimal and uncluttered. The use of enormous silhouettes/shadow figures on a rear scrim to represent the passing Carnival in Act III was particularly effective.

Musically things were more or less in competent hands although the small-ish pit presented certain problems, especially in the reduced string section which numbered only 16 first and second violins. Other than the opening to Aida, it is hard to think of another Verdi opera where the high strings are so exposed as in the Preludio (and later introduction to Act III) in La Traviata. The ppp markings requiring the barest whisper of a melodic line makes these measures acoustically easier in smaller houses, but the most minute flaws are cruelly apparent, and in the Slovenian National Theatre uneven string tone and intonation imprecision were evident at the outset. Czech conductor and Janaček specialist Jaroslav Kyslink maintained a brisk pace throughout, although a little more attention to fermate, rubati and a wider breadth of tempi would have been preferable. He certainly kept the reduced Verdian orchestra from overpowering the singers, but in such a small house (530 seats) one would have expected better projection from the stage.

The large corowas vocally impressive although the Italian diction should have been clearer. This could be due to the fact that many operas in Ljubljana (and all buffo repertoire) are still sung in Slovenian. Although the ensemble singing was strong, the comprimario roles were for the most part disappointing. Gastone (Rusmir Redžić); Douphol (Anton Habjan); the Marchese (Juan Vasle) and Giuseppe (Edvard Strah) sang adequately but without distinction. The Flora of Galja Gorčeva had reasonable stage presence but very poor diction. Annina was more sympathetically sung and acted by Galja Gorčeva. The most impressive of the smaller roles was the Dr. Grenvil of young Slovenian bass-baritone Rok Bavčar who in the limited amount he has to sing, displayed a warm timbre and commendable phrasing. He may have been better cast as Père Germont. This role was interpreted by Ivan Andres Arnšek who was regrettably dramatically and vocally unconvincing - perhaps too affable for one of the most hypocritical if not despicable characters Francesco Piave adapted from Dumas’ roman. His physical appearance, despite a shock of grey hair, suggested more Alfredo’s older brother and the addition of a walking stick was more a hindrance than a dramatic asset as he forgot to use it most of the time. Mr Arnšek’s voice was not disagreeable but lacked depth and resonance and his dramatic denunciation of Alfredo at the beginning of the Act II Sc. ii finale (Di sprezzo degno) had no gravitas or impact at all.

Alfredo was performed by Alijaž Farasin. While he sang the notes (except the Act II O mio rimorso cabaletta) there was something rather bland about his performance. Dei miei bollenti spiriti was about as boiling as a plate of cold bucatini. This was no passionate young man hopelessly in love with a seductive courtesan, but a rather pedestrian provincial out of his emotional depth. A slightly nasal timbre marred the ideal lyricism of the role, although he was more effective expressing rage in Act II Sc. ii Ah, comprendo! basta, basta. One certainly missed the impassioned exuberance of Rolando Villazón, Jonas Kaufmann or Joseph Calleja.

The greatest interest of the evening was the unscheduled Violetta of Russian soprano Natalia Ushakova. This is a singer who is currently singing everything from the Königin der Nacht and Manon Lescaut to Salomé. It is hard to define exactly what kind of soprano she is, which in a sense is helpful in an opera which requires at least three different kinds of voices for the lead role. Although enjoying frequent collaboration with Plácido Domingo and apparent success at La Scala with Mimi, Covent Garden with Amelia (Simon Boccanegra) and Violetta in Vienna, from this performance it is hard to understand how she has achieved such accolades. With such great interpreters of the role as Ileana Cotrubaş, Teresa Stratas, Angela Gheorghiu, Natalie Dessay and Renée Fleming still in recent memory, Violetta is a role which should not be attempted lightly. Apart from a rather irritating habit of squinting like a Smiley icon when taking high notes, Madame Ushakova’s voice is definitely uneven. While the F minor semiquavers at the beginning of Ah, fors'è lui in Act I were crisply detached as marked, the A natural at the end of addio del passato in Act III perfectly pitched without any annoying vibrato and her mezzavoce in dite alla giovine in Act II Sc.i the most moving singing of the evening, there were numerous intonation problems and awkward portamenti throughout her performance. Sheseemed to have no trill technique at all, which was especially noticeable on the Db, Ab and F’s on Ora son forte in the closing duet with Alfredo. The fioratura in the Act I Sempre libera lacked ease and elegance (definitely no Joan Sutherland) especially in the unaccompanied semiquaver ornamentation on ‘ah’ preceding the tempo change to allegro on follie, follie. Similarly, the fioratura on gioir was rushed and poorly defined. The top Db immediately before the allegro brillante change was dangerously unfocussed. It is hard to imagine this soprano coping with the high F’s in Der Hölle Rache. Although having formidable projection, the wrenching Amami, Alfredo, quant'io t'amo phrase in Act II Sc.iwas surprisinglylacking in vocal power and dramatic conviction. This Violetta’s stage presence was also a long way from that of the Alexandre Dumas’ seductive dame aux camélias. More cheerful babushka than sophisticated femme fatale, there was a contadina quality about her persona which might have appealed to the provincial in Alfredo but certainly not the worldly Baron Douphol. All in all, a rather mixed bag from Madame Ushakova. The enthusiastic audience gave the performance a very warm reception and a number of curtain calls. But Ljubljana is still a long way from La Scala.

Jonathan Sutherland

Cast and production information:

La Traviata Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana 5th December 2014 Conductor: Jaroslav Kyzlink, Director: Lutz Hochstraate, Set design: Rudolf Rischer, Costume Design: Bettina Richter, Choreography: Ivo Kosi Violetta Valery: Natalia Ushakova, Flora: Galja Gorčeva, Annina: Dunja Spruk, Alfrredo Germont: Alijaž Farasin, George Germont: Ivan Andres Arnšek, Gaston: Rusmir Redžić, Baron Douphol: Anton Habjan, Marchese d’Obigny: Juan Vasle, Dr. Grenvil: Rok Bavčar, Giuseppe: Edvard Strah

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