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Performances

16 Sep 2019

La traviata at the Palais Garnier

The clatter of information was overwhelmed by soaring bel canto, Verdi’s domestic tragedy destroyed by director Simon Stone, resurrected by conductor Michele Mariotti, a tour de force for South African soprano Pretty Yende.

La traviata at Paris' Palais Garnier

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: The "Sempre libera"

All photos © Charles Duprat, courtesy of the Opéra National de Paris.

 

No longer the sad tale of a fallen woman and the illusions of her Parisian beau monde, of a dangerous infatuation and the vindication of simple country life, director Simon Stone’s tale was of a celebrity Parisian beauty who was dying of cancer, and her drunken lover whom she rejected by capitulating to his authoritarian father.

This gave conductor Michele Mariotti carte blanche to explore Verdi’s musical world in bold strokes. An enormous orchestral explosion confirmed the declaration of love in the second act, a shattering fortissimo announced the lovers’ separation. But before and above all else the maestro sought and found the musical beauty of the full throated voices — this splendid bel canto ideal drew us not into this oft told tawdry tale but into a world of high operatic art.

South African soprano Pretty Yende had to be both an icon of beauty in the French capital and a singer equal to the musical aspirations of the conductor. With a purity of voice and dramatic innocence she well fulfilled the first, and with a formidable technique plus a willingness to take vocal risks she well met the maestro’s expectations. It was beautiful singing, the brilliance of her upper voice was carried amply into her lower registers, she dared exaggerated pianissimos in “Dite alla giovane si bella e pura,” she glowed in her farewell aria “È tardi . . .”

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Pretty Yende as Violetta Valery

Metteur en scène Simon Stone constructed a noisy counterpoint to the maestro’s bel canto. It was the nervous energy that seeps through the flashy Parisian veneer. There was actual noise from the grinding and creaking of the huge stage box that turned to reveal ever changing musical moments. The resulting cacophony of scenes invented by director Stone and his Australian designer Bob Cousins added both visual noise and conceptual noise to this real noise.

The huge box, missing two sides, sat on the revolving platform. The interior was empty white, though it took on significant accoutrement as it turned to color each of the revealed scenes — a gilded equestrian statue and one slowly dancing couple for “Sempre libera,” a live cow (milked by Violetta) for Germont’s Act II entrance, a chemotherapy lounge for the Act III prelude, among many other conceptually poignant, off-the-wall images.

The exterior sides of the two constructed walls were massive video screens that were first the show curtain as the closed eyes of Mlle. Yende, the lid of the left eye moving slightly from time to time (yes, this put us on edge). The video screens sometimes served to display frantic tweeting and news flashes, and more often the screens were covered with perfect roses (until an Act III scene when their pedals were burnt).

The walls provided backdrop as well for a kebab stand, and pointedly as backdrop for the trash bins that held the detritus of Parisian revelry, by extension, sadly, the fate of the opera’s true love. These among other striking, off-the-wall images — yes, it was indeed conceptually edgy.

A very drunk Alfredo appeared at Flora’s costume ball dressed as Daffy Duck (Simon Stone dressed the Duke of Gloucester as Mickey Mouse in his Salzburg Lear). The other guests in grotesque costumes (including a couple of misplaced prosthetic penises) were the sole decor in the choreographically-less white box of this spectacle scene. Australian theater costumer Alice Babidge dressed Violetta in an off-the-wall constructed white gown in which Mlle. Yende chose to appear to accept the extended ovations awarded her when it was all over.

While the Dumas fils La Dame aux camélias and the Piave Traviata were soundly destroyed, Verdi’s score did not suffer, taking on contemporary emotional rhythms, revealing a myriad of hidden resonances that made this Paris Traviata a completely new, compelling opera — a remarkable feat!

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Benjamin Bernheim as Alfredo Germont

Tenor Benjamin Bernheim ascended the pyramid of champagne glasses to deliver his “Libiamo” with the worldly energy of this unique Alfredo. He played the drunken Alfredo to the hilt and sang the final duet “Parisian, o cara, noi lasceremo” with remarkably beautiful phrasing. By incising his lines with precision baritone Lodovic Térzier surmounted the dramaturgical challenge of transforming Germont into a titan of industry before whom nothing is refused.

Simon Stone plays with a heavy hand. His Salzburg Médée just now was not a success, the slightness of the piece disappearing into the torrents of information that infused his staging. The brilliance of this Verdi masterpiece in the confident hands of bel canto conductor Michele Mariotti achieved a presence that the excessive energies of the Stone staging always amplified, and never diminished, to the very great pleasure of the opening night audience.

Michael Milenski


Cast and production information:

Violetta Valery: Pretty Yende; Alfredo Germont: Benjamin Bernheim; Giorgio Germont: Ludovic Tézier; Flora Bervoix: Catherine Trottmann; Annina: Marion Lebèque; Gastone: Julien Dran; Barone Douphol: Christian Helmer; Marchese d”Obigna: Marc Labonnette; Dottore Grenvil: Thomas Dear. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Mise en scène: Simon Stone; Set Design: Bob Cousins; Costumes: Alice Babidge; Lighting: James Farncombe; Video: Zakk Hein. Palais Garnier, Paris, France, September 12, 2019.

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