Bloomberg, June 20, 2007
Jorg von Uthmann
Verdi: La Traviata, Paris, Palais Garnier, June/July 2007
No Bubbly Flows in Austere Communist `Traviata' at Paris Opera
 June 20 (Bloomberg) -- The bubbly is missing in the ebullient party scene at the start of the Paris Opera's new production of Verdi's ``La Traviata.'' Director Christoph Marthaler says he hates ``champagne realism.''

Instead of champagne glasses, the members of the chorus raise what look like checkroom tickets: You slowly realize that the scene is not taking place in Violetta's salon but in the cloakroom of a ghastly theater in communist East Germany.

Marthaler, one of the paragons of what the Germans call ``Regietheater,'' or director's theater, has moved the setting from 19th-century Paris to the grim German Democratic Republic.

In Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt, Marthaler's set designer Anna Viebrock discovered a soon-to-be-demolished cultural center and bought the monstrous neon lamps which illuminated the lobby. They are the main props on an otherwise almost empty stage.

In the background, a curtain opens from time to time, revealing a second stage. In Act I, when Violetta sings her big solo, Alfredo appears with a harpist in his wake and throws in his amorous sighs, which Verdi wanted him to do from the street below her window.

Loud Lawnmower

In Act II, the second stage is occupied by a mechanic. The young man doesn't utter a word, though he makes a lot of noise repairing a lawnmower.

In the program, Viebrock explains that ``La Traviata'' was a contemporary story for the Venetians at the 1853 premiere at La Fenice and therefore should remain one for us.

In several scenes, Marthaler has the chorus wriggle around like marionettes. The message is clear: Forget about old Giuseppe Verdi and what he might have had in mind. I'm the one who pulls the strings.

It's almost a miracle that the three protagonists, despite the director's diversionary maneuvers, manage to get our sympathy.

Some Violettas have the agility for the fireworks of the professional escort; others have the vocal wherewithal for the passionate outpourings of the woman in love. Christine Schaefer has both. Still, her voice is too Germanic to make her an ideal Verdi singer.

Jonas Kaufmann, too, has an unusual timbre for an Italian tenor part. He almost sounds like a baritone. Yet he easily masters his top notes and fearlessly attacks even the optional high C at the end of his Act II cabaletta ``O mio rimorso,'' which some famous singers dare go near only in the studio.

Cheers, Boos

Jose Van Dam, who sings Germont senior, made his debut at the Paris Opera in 1961. The Belgian bass-baritone's voice has lost some of its bloom. Yet it's still a mighty instrument, used with enormous authority.

Conductor Sylvain Cambreling, though a bit heavy-handed, leads a carefully prepared performance. At the end of the opening night, the singers were cheered ecstatically.

When Marthaler and his team appeared, the cheers turned into vicious boos. He faced them with the smug smile of a man who sees it as his job to provoke the bourgeoisie and is pleased when the old trick has worked yet again.

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