La traviata: Death on a summer night

My last
night at the Munich Opera Festival ended happily. Elusive Anja Harteros
canceled her first Traviata, but she
showed up for this one, her second. The other two leads, Ramon Vargas and Simon
Keenlyside, both sounded the best I’ve heard them sing in ages, and the three work
together beautifully: not exactly Italian, but dramatically sensitive and musically
stylish in a way that made for a moving performance. The production is tired
and the conducting was unfortunate, but with Traviata the cast can get you a long way.

Verdi, La Traviata. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/31/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Omer Meir Wellber

Inszenierung Günter Krämer
Bühne Andreas Reinhardt
Kostüme Carlo Diappi
Licht Wolfgang Göbbel

Violetta Valéry Anja Harteros
Flora Bervoix Heike Grötzinger
Annina Tara Erraught
Alfredo Germont Ramón Vargas
Giorgio Germont Simon Keenlyside
Gaston Francesco Petrozzi
Baron Douphol Christian Rieger
Marquis d’Obigny Tareq Nazmi
Doktor Grenvil Christoph Stephinger
Giuseppe Dean Power
Ein Diener Floras Tim Kuypers
Ein Gärtner Peter Mazalán
Alfredos Schwester Demet Gül

production leaves no corners uncut, with vague minimalist settings that either
confuse or just don’t do anything (Act 1 features lots of doors, Act 2 a
children’s playground?). The setting is black-and-white (except Violetta’s red flower) Belle Epoque, with the ladies of the chorus wearing beaded shower
caps and the gentlemen in penguin suits. Act 1 features an inexplicable
multiplicity of conga lines. Sometimes the economy hurts—the ballet consists of
nothing more than the chorus gently bobbing up and down on the beat—but for the
most part it is just an absence. Act 2 Scene 1 features a visit from Alfredo’s
sister, but another problem is that the production keeps the action largely
confined to small areas of the stage. This is fatal in a theater with such poor
sightlines, and I saw almost nothing for this entire scene. I suspect the
people on the other side of the theater saw almost nothing in Act 3, but that’s
not the way to balance it out. Given some decisive Personenregie it might not
be too bad, as it is now it left the singers to their own devices.
Regal Anja
Harteros is a Violetta that anyone could take home to their parents. (I have
seen her sing the role once before, at the Met in 2008. I thought she was
better tonight, and the rest of the cast infinitely better.) As Act 1’s party
girl she doesn’t really convince, though the production has her do nothing more
debauched than twirl around some champagne glasses. In Act 2 her poise and
majesty is of a degree that would certainly impress Germont, but collapses into
a vulnerability that is very touching. She hadn’t shown many signs of weakness
in the first two acts, but apparently this Violetta went downhill very quickly,
and her hacking up of a lung in Act 3 is raw and brutal, with a technically
impressive amount of singing from a horizontal position (unrealistically luxe
pillows providing a suitable angle). Her voice is big but flexible, with a
dark, woody texture that isn’t really Italianate fullness but is uniquely
beautiful in its own way. For someone with a large sound she navigated “Sempre
libera” exceptionally well, but again it’s in the rest of the opera where she
really shows her strengths, with an almost too-slow “Dite alla giovine” and
letter aria sung with long phrases, and “Amani Alfredo” filling the house.

Ramon Vargas
and Simon Keelyside as the Germont family were both much improved from their
earlier Verdi essay in Vienna’s Don Carloin June. There’s something a little gummy about Vargas’s voice, possibly just
wear, but he’s so meticulously stylish; not a note comes out carelessly. (He knows
his limits—no high C. Harteros didn’t try that annoying E-flat, either, thank
goodness.) Simon Keenlyside also sounded more at ease, and developed Germont
with great passive-aggressive nuance, weighing his words and singing with a far
greater variety of color than he did as Rodrigo or Wozzeck (that this has been
my Summer of Keenlyside is purely accidental and unplanned).
Alas, there
was a hitch, and that was Omar Meir Wellbur’s conducting. It was improved over
his Vienna Rigoletto which was maybe
the closest I’ve ever heard to a train wreck in a major new production (FYI, that production of Rigoletto is not, after all, going to be the Met’s, it was, in fact, that bad), but
there were lots of little wrecks (the most obvious being getting a few beats
off  from Harteros in the Act 1 duet and
staying there for a measure or two). He pushed the orchestra into expressive
phrases, but sometimes the various sections didn’t really stay together, even
the usually ironclad strings. More problematic were his speed demon tempos. He
would strike up each cabaletta at a mean clip and the singer or singers would
enter at a slower tempo and a tug of war ensued (Harteros and Vargas won their
battles, Keenlyside seemed to cede defeat and regrouped after the end of each
phrase). Other times, singers seemed perfectly content in holding their high
note fermatas while the orchestra would prematurely reenter and obviously take
them by surprise. You can’t fault him for energy, but there was obvious
disagreement afoot.
Despite the
faults—and not being able to see much of any of Act 2 Scene 1—this was really a
lovely Traviata. Harteros is a frequent canceler and can be hard
to catch, but she’s worth tracking down if you can. This was a fortuitous combination of
three singers with great taste and similar styles. Given how much opera I see
with wildly mismatched casts I suspect it’s a fluke, but a rare and lucky one.

The Festival ends tonight with Rosenkavalier but I’m a little Rosenkavaliered out and am skipping it. See you this weekend from Salzburg, where I will be reporting on Ariadne (DUH) and La bohème.

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.

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  1. Dear opera companies – If you continue to program La traviata, I will continue to not buy tickets.

    (Sorry but there has to be a limit with this particular opera)

  2. Hi Zerbinetta,

    Since you deserted Vienna, I still read your blog but can't compare my impressions to yours (although I was Les Troyens at the ROH too, and was quite disappointed, but I was too busy to react to your article).

    I'll be in Salzburg from Aug. 2nd to the 11th (or 12th), with both Musicasola and Mrs Musicasola. If you fell like grabbing a cup of coffee or 1/8 Grüner Veltliner at some point, or indulge in some Kaiserschmarren, just say the word, it could be fun.