Traviata Heartstrings

Innovation is as important in the theatre or opera house as it is in any other area of human endeavour.  Nobody in their right mind regrets the passing of gaslamps and other fire hazards which plagued theatres for centuries. Generally speaking, innovations are enhancements to be welcomed. But is it always so?

Empirical studies over more than a decade indicate that the production team is most prone to an audience roasting at the end of a première. They are rarely mortally wounded and mostly survive with good humour, knowing that in time their production ends up widely admired. Is this just a matter of tradition versus novelty?

Take Tosca, set in Rome in 1800.  There are three scenes of real and extant locations easily replicated on stage, as in the 1993 production at the Vienna State Opera. Should this concept be the barometer of excellence? Or are semi-abstract stagings to reflect modern sensibilities more appropriate?

There are certain trends in place. “Curtain up” is an expression loaded with the atmosphere of theatre. But have you noticed how many opening curtains drop to the floor? And increasingly things rise from below instead of being lowered from the gantries above. Thirdly, perhaps as a pragmatic acknowledgement of difficult times, there are more and more co-productions with other theatres.

One of these is the new La Traviata at the Staatsoper. Natalie Dessay has the almost incomparable ability to grab your heartstrings no matter what character she sings. It is more than her wonderful voice, full of the most sensitive timbres and great strength. Remember La fille du regiment (Marie) or La sonnambula (Amina) and how much they were loved by whole audiences every night.

In this Traviata we see Violetta as an obviously sick woman with her doctor, then as the overture comes to an end, summoning up the strength and courage to face into a big party, pretending to be full of life and charm until her consumptive coughing gives her away. Already, she had won the admiration and anxious sympathy of the full house. And so it grew as she heroically suffered at the hands of the two men who should have been her life support.  In a half century of Traviatas I have never seen so many tearful eyes willing her to live, as she herself was willing to live just as she had to die.

Charles Castronovo as Alfredo was a great match and Fabio Capitanucci as Georgio sang beautifully, movingly sensitive to the dilemma of the situation. Incidentally, it was role debut performances for all three. Zorana Kushpler, as Flora, excited not only vocally, but also in breathtaking dancing, in a production marked by great sensitivity to details. The staging was less successful, apparently designed for the great outdoors with trendy panels of scene suggestion replacing Grand Opera-style sets. The audience didn’t like that too much.

The Volksoper has a huge hit with a brilliant production of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Here again the production reflected contemporary trends in staging, costume and representation through symbolism. Annemarie Kremer was outstanding as Salome in a very demanding part, where she sometimes had to stretch against an orchestra running on full throttle. You don’t see so much of Jochanaan, but you hear him, and Sebastian Holecek was a delight. By comparison to these demanding roles, those of Herodias (Irmgard Vilsmaier) and Herodes (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) are less burdensome, but were very well performed and totally credible as vile creatures.  Joerg Schneider’s Narraboth is marvellous, as though the excitement would be too much for him.

The famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” was masterful, a very sensitive performance by Annemarie Kremer, and without disrobing – any of the performances in November will explain what I mean.

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