Opera, September 2007
Verdi: La Traviata, Paris, Palais Garnier, June/July 2007
At the PALAIS GARNIER on June 24, Christoph Marthaler’s staging was less a production and more a ‘correspondences’ guessing game. By means of instantly recognizable and specific imagery (the famous spotlight pose, the wig, the dress) he portrayed Violetta as Edith Piaf, mid 1950s. Alfredo, sporting a floppy fringe, wide lapels and drainpipe trousers, clearly represented Théo Sarapo, Piaf’s much younger second husband. Violetta’s illness, and the sense that her glamorous milieu was failing to give her the stability she needed, was signalled by fainting spells, narcolepsy and bouts of mental absence—a reference to Piaf’s addiction to morphine.

So far, so traviata. Here was a touching portrait of a fragile woman who had suffered, and who was being offered a chance of happiness in the form of a young lover. But Marthaler chose to muddy what might have been a workable (just!) concept with typically jarring experiments in theatrical tone. He encouraged some finely detailed, naturalistic acting from Christine Schäfer and Jonas Kaufmann as the lovers; yet he instructed the chorus to move with robotic twitchings and nervy shufflings, and placed all the action—ballroom, countryside, bedroom—in a single, constraining set designed to look like a run-down theatre stage and foyer (designs were by Anna Viebrock). Yes, it was our old friend, the hoary ‘theatre-as-life’ metaphor so beloved of directors with nothing to say. What the chorus was up to, I still haven’t a clue.

Amid so much theatrical flotsam, the petite Schäfer looked tremendous and acted with gripping intensity. Vocally she didn’t prove to be an ideal Violetta: her climactic top Cs and D flats sounded forced and insecure, and her voice wasn’t large enough to carry the huge cry of ‘M’ami!’ in Act 2. Still, the creaminess of tone she displayed in the rest of the role made up for much. Kaufmann was on much securer ground. Not only did he look like the heart-throb Sarapo, he gave a convincing portrayal of a gauche and utterly besotted youth, and sang with a commanding beauty of tone. The same couldn’t be said of José van Dam (Germont père), who was flat on several occasions, hoarse and barky for the rest, and appeared stiff and awkward. To add to the general oddness of the evening, Sylvain Cambreling’s tempos were the slowest—and I mean slowest—I’ve ever heard. The violins had trouble keeping a warm tone and elegant sense of line at such dirge-like speeds. Not surprisingly his curtain-call brought some loud booing, as well as a few counter-cheers in his defence.

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