Next Salon Discussion
Tuesday 2nd May: First Tuesday Current Affairs discussion
Discussing First topical issue (Simon Belt) and Second topical issue (Mark Iddon)
|Manchester music reviews|
Reviewed by Denis Joe February 2012
Perhaps the two most popular opera composers, these days, are Puccini and Verdi. Whilst the former’s output dwarfs the latter, only a handful of Verdi’s operas remain popular, and none more so than La Traviata. It is the staple production of many opera companies and an opera that is guaranteed to get ‘bums on seats’. That would suggest that the chances of presenting the work in a novel fashion are pretty slim. But David Mc Vicar’s La Traviata (first performed two years ago) certainly gives food for thought and in doing so creates the realisation that the composer, even at the height of his popularity, did not rest on his laurels.
The Prelude to this opera is, for me, the most perfect beginning to any opera. We know from the start that it will not end well for the characters, as the orchestra plays the quiet bars, that we will hear again in the third act: the leitmotif of Violetta on her death bed. It is the most heart-rendering music I can think of and describes a scene that could be nothing other than tragic. Slowly the prelude picks up tempo as we go backwards into the fading heartbeats that will dominate the second act. Then there is a pause, as the curtain rises to reveal a large group of people, enjoying what life has to offer.
And it is then that we can understand why Verdi chose to open this opera with the dying motif. The courtesan, Violetta, is throwing a party to celebrate her recovery from a serious illness, known today as pulmonary tuberculosis, but was then known by the more descriptive (and Romantic) term: ‘consumption’ (see Clark Lawlor’s excerpt from his book in the WNO programme). One of the main features of the disease is that the victim experiences something like a recovery, only more profound, usually when they are near death.
One of the standing jokes of opera is how you have to suspend disbelief when you see a strapping soprano playing the role of a consumptive. Most of the time, as with the tenor role, the voice requires a larger bodied singer in order to do justice to the roles. But Joyce El-Khoury has the authority and beauty of presence and voice in the role. This is obvious from the very start when, having sent the guests away to another room, Violetta catches sight of her pale reflection in the mirror. She also sees that Alfredo, the shy young man who had been introduced to her earlier on, is still in the room.
Alfredo is sang by the Italian-American tenor, Leonardo Capalbo: a quick replacement for Carlos Osuna, who became indisposed and could not appear. In the first act Capalbo seemed hesitant and a little weak in voice, especially during his earlier aria in praise of wine and love. And in the scene, where he becomes aware of Violetta’s ill health (un dì felice, eterea) his voice does becomes stronger as he admits his love for her.
After the party is over and the guests have left, Violetta is alone and wonders about whether Alfredo is to be her first real love. Ah fors’è lui is the first indication we are given of the strength of the soprano for this role. It is not just the ability to sing that says how great a singer El-Khoury is, but also the dramatisation of the voice. Once she debates with herself about love, trying to dismiss it (Follie! Follie!) we are given an indication that this production of La Traviata is not simply another excuse to pull in the crowds. It seems that the director, David McVicar, is intent on investigating the psychology of main characters. When the curtain falls on Act 1, we are left, not with pity for Violetta, but with understanding. This is why, I feel, it was necessary for the opera to open with the music of the final act. Verdi seemed not to be content with just pulling the heartstrings of the audience, he wanted us to gain an understanding of the tragedy of the situation. And this production certainly brings that out.
Act 2 of this opera is, for me, the most beautiful and affecting scenes I have ever encountered. When it fails, the tragedy lies in the loss of trying. But when it succeeds it is an experience beyond measure. Scene 1: It is three months after the party and Violetta is deeply in love with Alfredo. She has given up her life as a courtesan and has moved to the country to live with Alfredo. He is not wealthy and she is reduced to selling her possessions, without Alfredo’s knowledge, in order to keep them together. Alfredo is away and Violetta receives an unexpected visit from his father, Giorgio Germont, sung by one of my favourite baritones, Jason Howard (though I found that his singing was rather restrained than I remember from previous roles I have seen him in. But this added a greater sense of firmness to the role of Giorgio Germont). The father has come to ask Violetta to renounce her life with Alfredo as her ‘immoral’, past and their equally decadent present, reflected badly on the Germont family name.
What is so wonderful about this scene, and something not normally commented on, is that this is a meeting of two equals. I think that Verdi (and the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave) and McVicar understood that Violetta’s earlier role as a courtesan, carried with it, its own level of authority, she was not simply someone who can be seen as an exploiter of women but as someone who understood the needs of bourgeois society. Whilst the need to escape the stifling atmosphere of that life could be catered for by salons, there was another aspect to it that could not so easily be dodged and that was the social pressures. Germont senior represents the authoritative voice of the upper middle classes of the time and so the encounter between these two characters cannot be so easily dismissed as a whim. I think that looking at this scene in such a way can tell us much about the changing mores of Verdi’s time, but also there is a greater appeal for us today in understanding la règle du jeu of social interaction.
The approach, in which the scene moves from Violetta’s hurt at being thought of as a kept woman – from showing Giorgio Germont the receipts for the things that she has sold in order to support his son - to the manner that Germont senior is forced to see that Violetta really is in love with Alfredo challenges the things that he holds so dear. But he uses her affection to ask that she leave Alfredo for his own good, allowing him to re-join the respectable world. He talks of the fickleness of love but there is an awareness that he is asking Violetta to make a grave sacrifice, which she concedes to and agrees that she should leave Alfredo.
The music and singing of this encounter is some of the greatest Verdi ever composed. The realism (Verismo) in opera was still a few decades in the future. The ‘sacrifice’, usually of the heroine, played a central role in opera (and other arts, particularly in the Romantic period). But that role highlighted the victimhood of women and was a necessity to the eventual success of the hero. In this act, where the drama is brought up to the contemporary times (of Verdi), this one scene, which is pivotal to the opera, suggests that the tragedy of the heroine is a tragedy for us all. Verdi’s approach to this is one of the most profound moments in opera history. Whilst this production seems to emphasise the psychological impact, it does not detract from the social and seems to highlight the dialectic that exists between the individual and society. When, at the end of the scene, Germont senior tries to console his son (Di proveneza il mar), who has received a letter from Violetta telling him that it is all over between them, this is not just a ‘there are plenty of fish in the sea’ cliché, we are left in no doubt that the old man is profoundly shaken by the conflict between emotion and duty. Alfredo’s hostility towards his father, which ends the scene, seems to demand that the audience take this division of social mores seriously. We know that Alfredo’s flight to Paris to find Violetta, is only going to lead to heartbreak.
The second scene of Act 2 is set in a salon in which the courtesan, Flora, is holding a party in which she has invited Alfredo and Violetta, unaware of what has happened. When Alfredo comes to the party alone there is much surprise and, just like a pouting teenager, he tries to shrug it off and heads for the gambling table. Violetta arrives later, accompanied by a Baron, who demands that Violetta has nothing to do with Alfredo, who is making a scene at the gambling table. As with Act 1, we are thrown back into a world of frivolity, that is dominated by the tension of the two major protagonists. As with the rest of this opera the music and singing is glorious, and there is no attempt to create a judgemental situation. This is what people do. And this is how people let their hair down.
It is a wonderful scene where we are allowed to momentarily forget the tragedy that will eventually affect all. The closing of the scene sees the Baron succumb to jealousy of Alfredo who is winning at cards. He challenges the young man and loses before everyone is called in to dinner in another room. Here the mood changes once again from the pretence at nonchalance of Alfredo to the pretence of Violetta in order to keep her promise to Germont senior. She returns alone to the room, having asked Alfredo to follow. She pleads with him to leave and he demands that she come with him. She says she is in love with the Baron and eludes to the oath that she took. Alfredo is led to believe that the oath was given to the Baron and denounces Violetta, for her ‘fickleness’ to the other guests. The rest of the party is horrified by Alfredo’s outbursts and when Germont senior enters, he denounces his son, who is then full of remorse. Violetta, who has regained consciousness, having fainted, tells Alfredo that he will one day come to realise how much she really did love him (Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core), as the curtain falls.
The prelude to Act 3 opens with the same bars of Violetta’s dying scene. It does not review the life, in the way that the Act 1 prelude does and there is a hesitancy, which suggests the false hopes that the disease of consumption can raise in the patient. The scene is a bedroom where, the servant Annina (the wonderful Sian Meinir) is tending to the dying Violetta. Outside bailiffs are waiting to take away what possessions are left. There is a beautiful act, during this scene, where Violetta tells Annina to ensure that there is enough money for her and to give what is left to the poor (Teneste la promessa . . .Addio, del passat). It would be easy to see this as pandering to basic feelings, but I think that this is more a sign of an equally basic feeling of giving to those more deserved, than allowing the bailiffs to get their hands on it. The beauty of this act is that Verdi does not suggest that we should see it in that way or any other. Instead the gesture flows as a straight forward act of human nature.
Act 3 can be seen as more than just the final section of a drama. I feel that in this act, Verdi and Piave, use the actions as an allegory for the way that the disease affects the patient, both physically and mentally. This is brought home by the unexpected arrival of Alfredo who begs forgiveness and promises a new life for them (Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo). Violetta is convinced that she will get better, but when she rises to get dressed she falters and Alfredo sends Annina to fetch the doctor. Germont senior arrives and is aware of what his interference has done. There is one more feeling of optimism as Violetta feels her health returning (this same scene is similar to Mimi’s death scene in Puccini’s La bohème, that came over half a century latter), before she dies and the curtain falls.
I have seen about five different productions of La Traviata (and have yet to see a bad one). I think that this production does more than simply provide the audience with a great and popular work. The cast of this production were more than adequate to live up to the vision that McVicar has for this work. It is difficult to pick out one member of the cast for special praise. But it should be pointed out that Carlos Osuna, coming in to replace Leonardo Capalbo was extraordinary. Whilst he is familiar with the role of Alfredo, his presence (and perhaps his limited rehearsals for this production) worked wonders. In Act 1 I thought that his hesitancy (when Alfredo is introduced to Violetta) might have been nerves, but he certainly dispelled that idea by the end of the act.
I will say that the orchestra, under the leadership of Julia Jones (until April 5th) were outstanding and the combination with what was going on on the stage created a fantastic event. It would be easy to simply say that having a production of La Traviata in a season was simply a way of ensuring that the season breaks even, money wise. But that would be too cynical a view. La Traviata is a popular opera because it is an outstanding opera, composed by an exceptional composer, and I feel that is something that the public understands. What is surprising is that it can be given a new lease of life. WNO’s production certainly does that. For those who have never been to an opera before, it is one that would make an outstanding introduction. For the more seasoned opera goer, this production provides a new insight into this work.
This Spring season tour :
Birmingham Hippodrome 8-10 March