Enrique Sacau
Verdi: La Traviata, Zürich, 09/04/2007
The good and the evil
Part of the success of La Traviata since its premiere in 1853 has had to do with its realistic approach to the subject matter. Verdi and Cammarano set the action in Paris, the only city in which, according to nineteenth-century imagination, a prostitute and a member of the gentry could move in together. In addition, Violeta dies of consumption. Before this operatic death, sopranos used to die of sorrow, commit suicide or be killed. In contrast, La Traviata holds a mirror up to its audience and shows the illness of the protagonist from the beginning of the piece to her theatrical death at the end of act 3. It is thus impossible not to recall images of friends and relatives who have died in a similar way, which is one of the reasons why staying dry-eyed at the end of a good Traviata is so difficult.

La Traviata also has, however, a deeply unrealistic side: Germont's depiction as the evil character, for example. Germont’s opposition to his son's relationship with a prostitute was common 1850s behaviour. Moreover, it is what most Western people would still do nowadays. And yet, the genre casts its spell: by asigning the role of Germont to a baritone, Verdi makes him the evil character. As a result of it, we leave the theatre blaming him for the failure of Violeta's relationship with Alfredo and making him responsible for the drama. Most opera directors do not take the opportunity to play with these ambiguities. Perhaps it would be easy (and interesting) to remind the audience that they would act similarly in the same situation. Jürgen Flimm's production, however, does not capitalise on this.

Flimm displays his well-known ability to make the best out of a limited space. Thus, he shows a black box in the centre of the stage that he opens or closes in order to depict different rooms (such as Violeta's dinning-room or bedroom). Unfortunately, this skillful solution is not mirrored by subtle direction when it comes to the actors. In fact, they seemed predominantly directionless, not knowing what to do or where to go. That was particularly obvious in act 3, in which Alfredo, Annina, Germont and the doctor simply contemplate Violeta's death without even moving. Interestingly, the final verses of the opera (those in which the doctor declares Violeta's death and the response from the other three) were cut out. It was not, therefore, a very exciting Traviata. There was, however, an excellent idea at the end of act 1. While the curtain was falling, and right after Violeta's "Sempre libera", she runs to the side of the stage where Barone Douphol is waiting to embrace her. This demonstrates that there is a rapport between Violeta and Douphol and therefore helps us understand why Douphol shows his hostility towards Alfredo from the very beginning. An noteworthy idea, that is missing in other productions.

The musical side of this Zürich performance of Traviata was more interesting than the staging. I expected Eva Mei to excel in act 1 and less so in the following two. Well, I was wrong. She sang a fairly good act 1, of course, although her voice was still warming up and there were some flat notes. Her best moment came in act 2 during Violeta's duet with Germont. The intensity of her singing and acting was remarkable. Renato Bruson's Germont was a perfect partner for Mei. Born in 1936, Bruson looks like an elegant though tired grandfather, whose deep feelings for his family and the values of Provence shone through in opposition to Parisian foolishness. These make him pressure Violeta to leave Alfredo. His phrasing was excellent and made up for his lack of vocal power. His notable performance was the best applauded by the audience.

My favourite, however, was Jonas Kauffman, a fantastic (and bold) tenor who achieves his best results when he sings forte in the upper range. Sometimes he was perhaps too enthusiastic about singing long phrases. On the one hand, his being overambitious might not produce perfect results; on the other, it helps portray an ardent lover who simply cannot understand what is happening to him. He did the same with Don Jose at the Royal Opera House last December. It seems that Kauffman is well suited for immature characters. He is very lucky then: most tenor parts are just like that! Paolo Carignani's conducting was increasingly good. He accompanied the soloists well and did a very good job with the accomplished orchestra and the excellent chorus. All in all, it was one of these performances in which the different musical elements blend in very well.

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