Guiseppe Verdi: La Traviata, Welsh National Opera, New Theatre, Oxford, 6 November 2009.
The two extremes of opera production are those where the director sets out to be totally faithful to the ideas and intentions of the composer and librettist, resulting in a completely unified and satisfying operatic experience, to those where the director sets out deliberately to defy the intentions of the composer and to impose his own agenda on the work. Examples of the former extend from most, though not now all, of the productions of the New York Metropolitan to Ellen Kent’s Opera International; recent examples I have been fortunate enough to be able to report are Glyndebourne’s 2009 Rusalka and the Met’s Aida (albeit in the cinema - but live). At the other extreme, I remember with horror Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne in 2000, Das Rheingold and Le Nozze di Figaro in Riga in 2006; Wagner seems particularly susceptible for reasons not entirely inexcusable. Most opera productions these days fall between these extremes, from simply moving the action in time or place to making a major adaptation, for example to fill out a plot or other perceived weakness in the opera (the NY Met’s recent Sonnambula for instance). A common temptation is to seek to add ‘significance’ by making allusion to related works, themes or historical events. There is a fine line between whether or not such productions succeed but one can usually sense whether it is the opera or the director’s ego which has prevailed. A prime example is the talented director Graham Vick who has migrated from one extreme to the other, with the long running Covent Garden Meistersinger at one end to the above-mentioned Don Giovanni at the other, the watershed perhaps being the highly imaginative production of Pelléas et Mélisande for Glyndebourne in 1999. One awaits with trepidation his version of Handel’s Tamerlano at the ROH in the spring.
This preamble is provoked by the subject of this review, WNO’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata directed by David McVicar which, in my view, comes close to crossing the line. This is a joint production with Scottish Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu given by Welsh National Opera on tour in Oxford, replacing in WNO’s repertoire that of 2004 directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. McVicar has been responsible for many of the most exciting operatic experiences in the UK in recent years, as well as having had a prolific international career. Outstanding among his credits are Handel’s Agrippina (seen at ENO in 2007) and Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Glyndebourne 2005), more recently Salome at ROH (not uncontroversial) and now, attracting rave reviews, The Turn of the Screw at ENO.
Both Traviata productions set the scene in a period other than the mid-nineteenth century of the original story. In 2004 we were in the modern world of fashion, in 2009 we are in the turn of the century monde of Toulouse Lautrec. This is a fatal flaw: no point is made by the transposition and the music, set against the social life of the period, just does not fit. McVicar attempts to make a joke of this by having a can-can danced to the gypsy music of the second party scene (reminiscent of his Bollywood dance routine to Handel in his Giulio Cesare). If a director wants to produce a musical version of the Dame aux Camélias story in another time or place he is of course free to do so but he should provide his own music. Not only this but it is also the sort of production where the director chooses to make reference through the sets and staging to other operas, works of art, literature. Some find figuring out such allusions interesting and amusing; to others they are intrusive and a distraction. An unfortunate and unintended case on this occasion was the resemblance of the red button-holes of some of the party guests to Remembrance Day poppies.
In spite of all this I was, as ever, moved by the opera – Verdi usually wins, his music and drama swamping directorial excesses. The story, in one sentence, is of the consumptive courtesan Violetta who gives up her career to live with the provincial, Provencal Alfredo until his father Giorgio Germont persuades her for his family honour to return to her old milieu, where she is publicly humiliated by Alfredo who is forced to leave Paris after a consequent duel with her current protector, returning for her to die in his arms, all forgiven. The black and white décor is effective and the party scenes, Act I and Act II Scene 2 were well stage-managed, though the chorus was rather crowded in a production designed for the larger space of the Wales Millennium Centre. The intimacies of Act II Scene 1 and Act III were powerfully and movingly presented, once one overcame the distractions, although the singers, individually good, did not totally relate to one another in their exchanges. Violetta, sung by Katia Pellegrino, having recently taken over the role, did not quite convey the character’s vulnerability: at Flora’s party she looked far too healthy in her flaming red dress with its awe-inspiring décolletage. Alfie Boe was an unremarkable Alfredo and Dolario Solari was a rather light-voiced Giorgio Germont. Of the minor characters, the sympathetic portrayal of the maid Annina by Joanne Thomas stood out. The conductor Andrea Licata drew a rousing performance from chorus and orchestra and well supported the singers but we missed that extra heightened sense of excitement of which we know this company to be capable under the right baton.
As a replacement for the 2004 production in WNO’s repertoire, this is a disappointment. It repeats the mistake of thinking that because the story can be meaningfully transposed forward in time so can the opera. The music fits neither 1900 nor 2000. It is perverse to try to make it.
26 November 2009