Opera News, September 2007
Verdi: La Traviata, Paris, Palais Garnier, June/July 2007
PARIS — La Traviata, L'Opéra National de Paris, 6/16/07
For the "populated desert called Paris" envisioned by Alexandre Dumas, the Opéra National entrusted Verdi's La Traviata to controversial producer Christoph Marthaler and his designer Anna Viebrock, in a performance (seen June 16) conducted by Sylvain Cambreling. 

La Traviata has suffered more than its fair share of poor productions, in stagings that have relied heavily on what Marthaler disparagingly describes as "Champagnen-realismus." The juxtaposition of the nineteenth-century glamour of the Palais Garnier and Violetta's terminal tragedy offers plenty of scope for a contemporary designer, but Viebrock took her gloomy visual inspiration from the former Kulturhaus in Karl-Marx-Stadt, now Chemnitz. This functional piece of Communist architecture, with suspended neon lights, featured a useful stage area for Alfredo's offstage lines in Act I, a workshop and laundry in Act II, and finally Violetta's death bed. Marthaler sees Violetta as an Edith Piaf figure, a variety singer who lived excessively and died a physical ruin but an iconic myth. It almost works as an analogy, although Piaf was never part of elegant salon society and still less a kept woman. 

In the vestibule of the "Kulturhaus," we find a waif-like Violetta with a tight perm of gingered hair, tottering uneasily on high heels and wearing the emblematic little black dress. Here she meets the clumsy yet irresistibly handsome Alfredo, who is visibly out of place in the company of Marthaler's mechanically twitching, couture-clad partygoers. During the brindisi, it is not a glass of old-fashioned champagne that they raise but their cloakroom tickets. The ensuing love duet sounded like a doomed tryst, and even Violetta's "Sempre libera" seemed to be delivered in the grip of tragedy. 

The simple follow-spot used by Piaf in her final concerts lit the fragile palms-on-dress figure of Christine Schäfer, around whose remarkable gifts the production turned. In Act I, it was hard for the soprano to play against the musical exuberance of the score, but Cambreling kept frivolity and musical fizz to a minimum. There is no questioning the sincerity of this rough, unsentimental reading, but the conductor's detailed, near-Expressionist approach to the score sounded ponderous. Schäfer could not disguise the fact that she possesses neither the glittering coloratura for Act I nor the weight and Italianate color of voice for the succeeding acts, but her pinpoint intonation and girlish timbre succeeded on their own terms. 

The biggest ovation of the evening was reserved for the Alfredo of Jonas Kaufmann, whose portrayal of the gangling youth was remarkable. He began Act II by repairing his lawn mower, into which he sang most of his recitative; this convincing naturalism was carried too far when the tenor sang what may have been an excellent top C with his back to the audience. His increasingly baritonal tenor sounded rich and powerful but seems destined for a different, heavier repertoire. José van Dam was disappointing as a stern Giorgio Germont. The great bass-baritone was ill advised at this stage to take on this role, which would have been high for him even in his prime; despite his sure musical intentions, the vocal result was embarrassing. Michèle Lagrange seized on the opportunity to raise the profile of Annina — here a very present and eccentric, bespectacled nursemaid. The indomitable Helene Schneiderman, as Flora, buzzed around the stage in her white party dress like a frenzied debutante, unconcerned that Alfredo's "gambling" involved no game of any sort.

There was some predictable booing for the production team and conductor at the final curtain. Despite the meticulous and stimulating staging, this was a strangely unmoving performance of an opera that has survived and triumphed under more routine conditions. 

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