La Traviata

traviata‘La Traviata’  by Guiseppe Verdi at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

22nd February, 2014

‘One day I’m going to make the world do her (La Traviata) honour. But not a Naples where your priests would be terrified of seeing on stage the sort of things they do themselves at night on the quiet.’  Giuseppe Verdi

To understand the full impact of Verdi’s words, we can appreciate initially that the literal translation of the title of the opera is ‘the woman led astray’. There are two sources of inspiration here: one is from Verdi’s relationship with his own wife (formerly an unmarried mother and opera singer);the other is that the role of Violetta was originally based on the real-life courtesan Marie Duplessis, who, as Marguerite Gautier, was the subject of Alexandre Dumas’novel and play, La Dame aux Camélias. The significance of the name ‘Camille’ and the flower itself, relates to the white camellia which the original Marguerite Gautier would wear to show her availability and also to the red camellia worn on those days when she was unavailable. Each of these reinterpretations of La traviata figuratively adds to the sense of Violetta as a ‘fallen woman’.

Now all this would predicate an emotionally calibrated evening. Certainly, the original title, ‘Amore e morte’ suggests this, even more since it had to be changed and the time set back to the 1700s rather than the 1900s. Verdi strongly objected, but the patriarchal/Christian censors did not want the lascivious goings-on in the story to be seen as a reflection of contemporary life. That a courtesan with questionable morals might be a likeable operatic heroine was a radical notion for its time.

Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto is not complex. The plot fits the quintessential formula for a tragic opera.  It features a pair of lovers kept apart by some conflict of duty or responsibility and resolved only by a character’s death. So Verdi’s femme fatale, Violetta Valéry falls for an unlikely suitor in the form of an academic type, Alfredo Germont, retiring to the country for a quiet life. Unfortunately for her, his father objects to this, worrying that Violetta’s promiscuous past will jeopardize his own daughter’s chances of marriage. Under the father’s coercive force, Violetta leaves Alfredo, and flees to Paris.  She is forced to give up her last chance of happiness in what turns out to be a tragic dilemma between what she wants and what she thinks she deserves, damned by society and God. Subsequently, Alfredo follows her, humiliating her publicly but as Violetta succumbs to her fight against tuberculosis, she and Alfredo are reconciled in heart-breaking finale.

The saving grace of the production manqué is attributable almost exclusively to Violetta (Oxana Klipka and not Olga Sosnovskaya as expected from the programme).It is a paradoxical role which demands strength (odd, given the nature of the character’s reputation as a courtesan), and fragility, in equal measure, and in voice and temperament.  Klipka’s rendition of ‘sempre libera’ is temporarily uplifting in the first Act.

In contrast, Alfredo Germont (Chingis Ayusheev) lacks lustre. It would seem his dark, glossy, Italianate hair was a selection criteria but it is not enough to compensate for rather dull, stiff acting.  Scarcely does he make eye contact with Violetta, spending most of the time addressing the stage floor, all of which made Violetta’s subsequent self-sacrifice implausible. To compensate for the visual mis-match, close your eyes, fantasise about the magnetism of Placido Domingo and remain content.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Tselebrovskiy as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, is a comfortable baritone, almost outshining his son. His voice overcomes the fact that he appears much the same age.  Yet overall, Tselebrovskiy does not have the weight and authority of an old, callous, entirely unpleasant character; he comes across more as a disillusioned romantic.

Musically, it was pleasant. In the first half the audience welcomed the famous drinking song: Brindisi: Libiamo ne lieti calici as collective memory found home ground.

 At the end, the orchestra announces the death of Violetta using the caller motif of death evident in all of Verdi’s operas – the alternation of two notes very short and long sound – which is more dramatically used in ‘Carmen’. We are left with Oxana Klipka’s nuanced soft singing adding to her final tragedy.

 Mezzo- Soprano Galina Malikova as the courtesan, Flora Bervoix, is an absolute delight and wasted amidst a chorus who labour hard with the party scenes where there is little engaged revelry.  Predictably, the visual metaphors are transparent: the use of single and multiple clocks convey the message of time’s winged chariot as Violetta attempts to fight her fate; the set and costumes are more reflective of  a Russian era when nothing was left undecorated, than a seductive vision of Toulouse Lautrec painting.  

TB was romanticised in the nineteenth century. Many at the time believed TB produced feelings of euphoria referred to as ‘Spec phthisica’ or ‘hope of the consumptive’. It was believed that TB sufferers who were artists had bursts of creativity as the disease progressed and that sufferers had a final burst of energy just before they died which made women more beautiful and men more creative.  So, while La Traviata traditionally engages the audience’s emotions directly, especially through the pathos of the heroine’s self-sacrifice, this production failed the three-hankie rating.

Without doubt, the Russian State Ballet and Opera Theatre of Komi touring company must be commended for what must be a punishing national schedule. Whilst the abridged production is flawed in several respects, the Yvonne Arnaud was bursting with the usual polite Surrey grey-haired punters.

One can’t help but lust after Violetta’s manifestation as Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s film, Moulin Rouge, which continues Verdi’s exposition of the tragic physical degeneration and death of a dissolute beauty, morally redeemed and redeeming by love. Ah, but then I’m no opera aficionado.