Peter Konwitschny’s new Traviata at the Oper Graz looks like simplicity itself. The set consists solely of some curtains and a single (1) chair. Most university productions are more elaborate. But this performance, led by Marlis Petersen’s devastating Violetta, needed no help to cut right to the heart, and the story unfolds with a brutal directness. The score is trimmed in ways you might expect and some you wouldn’t (no intermission), and the musical performance is so closely tied to the drama that discussing it separately seems silly.
Verdi, La Traviata. Oper Graz, 3.6.2011. Production by Peter Konwitschny, sets and costumes by Johannes Leiacker, lights by Joachim Klein. Conducted by Tecwyn Evans with Marlis Petersen (Violetta), Giuseppe Varano (Alfredo), James Rutherford (Germont)
The spare means of the production belie its conceptual sophistication. The rows of curtains are printed with trompe de l’oeil folds, and their red ripples are echoed in Violetta’s Act 1 dress. (Yes! we have another objectified lady in a short red dress o’ oppression.) They represent the layers of Violetta’s life: the shallowest stage (the most downstage curtains drawn) is her life as a courtesan, her love for Alfredo lets her painfully begin to open the layers to her deeper self. Finally, in the denouement at Flora’s in Act 2, it all collapses, the curtains pulled down, leaving the empty space of Violetta’s destroyed world.
She is already deathly ill in Act 1; the black-clad guests at her party are voyeurs, watching her every gasp. The group is less a dazzling society than a drunken, sadistic mess. Eager for more entertainment, the crowd throws nerdy, out-of-place Alfredo at Violetta, laughing at his attempt at a toast. She rebuffs him, but he tellingly makes his appearance in “Sempre libera” from the audience: the world of Alfredo and his father is the bourgeois one of the opera’s audience.
In Act 2, Violetta has desexualized herself, losing her bob wig and dress in favor of a lumberjack shirt, cargo pants, and combat boots, but this domestic and pastoral life is also an uneasy illusion of happiness (behind the curtains drawn at the end of Act 1 is another curtain). Alfredo’s father is a violent brute, actually bringing along his very young daughter to the meeting and not treating her so well. (Konwitschny is a good Brechtian, and the bourgeois morality on display is sufficiently hypocritical.) This life, it seems, isn’t all that fulfilling either, and Violetta even seems willing to shoot herself.
The pacing of the scene at Flora’s party is very strange, because the ballet is cut, as well as the references to the duel. Alfredo shows the moralizing tendencies of his father in the previous scene, leading to the climactic breaking point found in most Konwitschny productions, or, as Konwitschy puts it in his program note, “the surface cracks for a moment, and through his music Verdi gives us an insight into the genuinely apocalyptic forces in so-called civilized society… the whore, the only genuine human being in this opera, expresses, more or less as the lead voice, the great longing for a truly fulfilled existence.”
The final scene offers Violetta little consolation. The doctor is still wearing his party hat from the night out, and even though Alfredo returns too late, and as Violetta dies the other characters move further and further away from her, not so much a physical distance as an existential one. Eventually the all appear in the audience while she, heartbreakingly, dies alone.
What keeps the production going is the detail and commitment of the performances, from the leads to the chorus. The bare setting feels exactly right for a production this emotionally intimate and vivid. Never is there a hint of sentimentality. The cuts and lack of intermission place the focus squarely on Violetta’s quickly-unfolding fate as she attempts to find a livable place in an inhuman world.
Marlis Petersen’s utterly tragic Violetta is at the very center, with honesty, intensity, commitment, and considerable acting talent. She is a coloratura soprano, and while her high notes are dazzling the middle of her voice is less than refulgent. But she is so absorbing that complaining seems ridiculous. Giuseppe Varano as Alfredo’s acting was less accomplished than Petersen’s. The basic idea was there, but some of the more frantic moments did not quite work, though he was clearly trying. He is a solid, traditional Italian lyric tenor, but his singing in the passaggio and above sometimes sounded constrained, though he managed a decent high C at the end of the cabaletta. (We got one verse of his cabaletta while Germont’s cabaletta was cut, as were the second verses of Ah, forse’è lui and the letter aria.)
James Rutherford was a deep Wagnerian Germont, an odd bit of casting. He did his best to sing with flexibility, but sometimes sounded ill at ease in the more lyrical sections such as “Pura siccomme un angelo.” The aria was better. And he was an excellent actor in this exceptionally unsympathetic conception of the role. Smaller roles were adequately sung.
Tecwyn Evans conducted a fast account of the score that fit the production’s intermission-less rush, and everything held together well. The orchestra sounded quite good, but to be honest I did not notice them a whole lot.
This is not a Traviata for everyone–I know people who would be hollering about the cut of the ballet, and other people who would disparage the lack of pretty costumes–but as a night out at the theater it is a powerful experience. Not to be missed.
Note that this production is a joint effort with the English National Opera. Watch the trailer below and then see some photos I took of the beautiful Graz opera house. Further performances 11.3, 26.3 and 5.5, 18.5, 27.5 (in May with a slightly different cast).
Production photos copyright Werner Kmetitisch/Oper Graz