Financial Times, June 20 2007
By Francis Carlin
Verdi: La Traviata, Paris, Palais Garnier, June/July 2007
Verdi without the Italian touch
A small fragile figure in a Baby Doll funeral dress stands out among the well-dressed throng waving their cloakroom tickets. This is Violetta, recast as Edith Piaf in Christoph Marthaler’s new take on a Verdi lollipop, an attempt to make the courtesan’s tragic end relevant to contemporary audiences. The staging is not entirely original – Peter Mussbach’s presentation of Violetta as Marilyn Monroe a few years back beat him to it – but the makeover is tempting: La Traviata when new was so close to the bone that it was performed in early 18th-century dress until 1906. But like most updates this is a less than perfect fit. Piaf would have made short work of any father trying to persuade her to stop seeing his son. And how relevant today is Piaf anyway?

Christine Schäfer sings Violetta with her lovely, pitch-perfect soprano, a plucky performance that is impressive rather than moving. She projects well but the top notes are close shaves and she cheats by sliding through the coloratura runs. It matters less than it should because the production has been designed around her relatively modest means. This Violetta starts off in worse shape than usual, tottering around the stage as if the game is already up. And her sempre libera, cautiously dispatched, is therefore nothing like the usual defiance of terminal consumption. In the circumstances, Alfredo’s wooing seems spurred by charity rather than libido.

As with his Marriage of Figaro, Marthaler’s Traviata is festival rather than repertoire fare and will not take kindly to revivals. It is a fascinating experiment, an antidote to fusty productions and a chance to appreciate a certain shabby poetry and off-key brilliance. Even so, his style would be better employed elsewhere – Wozzeck next season, for example – and his trademark quirks and Teutonic clowning are beginning to grate: he too often resorts to the same figure facing a wall, a drunken woman falling over (twice) or the epileptic break dance movements of Violetta’s guests, here represented as caricatures of the Paris Opera’s patrons jostling in a Garnier cloakroom.

This is all standard, harmless provocation but Marthaler cannot resist spoiling the music. In Figaro, the letter duet was ruined by Susanna bashing away on a typewriter. Here, the entire interview between Violetta and Alfredo’s father is distractingly accompanied by Annina, a prototype Mrs Mop in house coat, patiently putting all the party frocks into noisy plastic covers. Might I suggest a bag of crisps to round off the torture?

The initial surprise that Anna Viebrock, Marthaler’s usual set and costume designer, has run up some gorgeous dresses is dispelled when we realise that these are copies of Dior and Schiaparelli. Viebrock reverts to her mean by sourcing Flora’s tarty dress and clodhopping sandals east of the Iron Curtain.

Poor Verdi. The Konzept vacuums up any Italian items and bins them. Jonas Kaufmann’s exceptionally fine tenor is misplaced as Alfredo but you ache to hear him in Meistersinger or Parsifal. Sylvain Cambreling’s slow, brutal conducting sounds like a callous dissection but is arguably in tune with the mood on stage. That, at least, is the charitable explanation.

A competing drama is unintentionally played out by José Van Dam’s ragged, tuneless Germont père. It is the tragic story of a great bass-baritone who at 68 should have retired

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