La Traviata

Summer must be over: the students are returning to University next week;  the cricket season is just about to end; the football season is well under way; the Last Night of the Proms is all done and dusted. But at least it all means the Opera season has started again!

Last night I went to the Wales Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production of La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Actually, to be precise, this was a co-production with Scottish Opera who supplied the sets scenery and costumes, it was directed by David McVicar and was first staged in Scotland before transferring to Wales for this run.

La Traviata is one of the most enduringly popular of all operas – and is one of the most frequently performed. It’s quite curious that its first performance in Venice was a complete disaster and it took several revisions before it became established as part of the operatic repertoire. A production like the one we saw last night, however, makes it abundantly clear why it is such an evergreen classic. Act I in particular is just one memorable tune after another.

The opera is based on the novel La Dame Aux Camélias which later became a play with the same name. It tells the story of Violetta, a glamorous courtesan and flamboyant darling of the Paris party scene. She meets a young chap called Alfredo at a spectacular do in her house in Act I and he tells her he’s completely in love with her. She laughs him off and he departs crestfallen. When the party’s over and  he’s gone, though, she finds herself thinking about him. The trouble with Violetta is that she is already seriously ill with consumption (tuberculosis) at the start. She knows that she is doomed to die and is torn between her desire to be free and her growing love for Alfredo.

Cut to Act II, Scene I, a few months later. Violetta and Alfredo are shacked up in a love nest away from Paris. While Alfredo is away paying off some of Violetta’s bills, Alfredo’s father Giorgio turns up and tries to convince Violetta to abandon her relationship with his son because its scandalous nature threatens their family’s prospects, particular his daughter’s (Alfredo’s sisters) plans to get married. Violetta eventually agrees to do a runner. Alfredo returns and meets his father who tries to convince him to return to his family in Provence. Alfredo is distraught to hear of Violetta’s departure, refuses to go with his father, and vows to find Violetta again.

Scene 2 is back in Paris, at the house of a lady called Flora. There’s a lot of singing and dancing and general riotousness.Alfredo turns up, slightly the worse for drink and proceeds to gamble (winning a huge amout of money). Violetta turns up and Alfredo insults her by throwing his winnings at her. He’s then overcome by remorse but the Baron Douphol, a wealthy friend of Violetta, is outraged and challenges Alfredo to a duel.

Act III is set a few months later in Violetta’s bedroom where she’s clearly dying. Alfredo has run off after wounding the Baron in a duel. The doctor gives Violetta just a few hours to live. Alfredo returns. The lovers forgive each other and embrace. Violetta dies.

In this performance Violetta was Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu, a name that’s quite new to me. She’s tall, elegant and has a lovely voice. Violetta is quite a demanding role- there are several tricky coloratura passages to cope with – but her character is quite complicated too. Although we know she’s ill right from the start she’s not by any means a passive victim. She’s a courtesan who has clearly put it about a bit, but she’s also got a strong moral sense. She’s vulnerable, but also at times very strong. I thought Myrtò Papatanasiu was a wonderful Violetta who not only sang beautifully but had a mesmerising stage presence.

The other star of the show (for me) was Dario Solari as Alfredo’s father. His richly textured baritone voice was a revelation to me. He was quite limited as an actor but musically excellent.

Tenor Alfie Boe’s Alfredo was less convincing. His voice was not as powerful as the other principals and at times he sounded very strained. He’s quite small in stature as well as voice and I found it hard to imagine that this particular Violetta would fall so dramatically for him. However Alfredo is torn between the powerful personalities of Violetta and his father so in a strange way his relative weakness worked out pretty well in that mixture.

The  look of the opera – staging and costumes – was also stunning. The Paris parties were riots of colour and movement with just as much debauchery as desired.

All in all an excellent production which I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. It was so good, in fact, that even after seeing it many times, and knowing very well what was going to happen, the final scene of Violetta’s death was still deeply moving. My love of Italian opera makes me regret even more that the UK will be be leaving the European Union in 2020.

Finally, I should also mention that La Traviata has a wonderful overture. I’ll probably stop going to opera when I no longer get butterflies in my stomach during the overture. It’s childish but I still get excited like that sitting  in the theatre waiting for the performance to start. This overture certainly does that for me, and it also underlines the  underlying tragedy of the story. Opening with ghostly strings that presage Violetta’s inevitable death, it then bursts into one of the beautiful melodies that Verdi seemed to be able to produce at the drop of a hat. Genius.

8 Responses to “La Traviata”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    An interesting difference is that the end of the football season is regarded as a climax whereas the end of the cricket season is regarded as a winding-down. Presumably that’s because the highlight of the cricket season is the Test series against the summer’s tourists, whereas the highlight of the football season is the battle to win the topmost national league (and often, for English clubs, the European Champions’ “League”).

    For diehards like me who support a county cricket club with as much avidity as the national team, this is not the case. Admittedly it is already obvious that my beloved Lancashire are neither going to win the county championship this season nor be relegated to its second division, so there’s not much left to play for, but I do hope to spend one more day in the sun (or if wet, the beer tent).

    Anton

  2. I popped in to see a bit of the Glamorgan versus Gloucestershire game the other day. It had a definite end-of-term feeling about it although at least we’ve had a bit of good weather for the past week or so.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    You can generally get into county championship matches free after tea, which makes a nice if slightly early end to the working day.

  4. Actually, when does it become clear exactly that Violetta is ill? 19th century Paris was not the most hygenic of places, but you couldn’t just assume that everyone was going to die of tuberculosis sooner or later (a la Boheme…).

    When Germont sings ‘Bella voi siete’ I don’t think he is thinking of an early death.. the way I read the plot is that the last act’s events are brought on by the /unexpected/ illness.

  5. Thomas

    The party in Act I is to celebrate Violetta’s recovery from illness, but she breaks down showing that she hasn’t really got better. It’s a matter of interpretation as to how much is known about her prognosis at that point, I suppose. In a production I saw a few years ago, the prelude to act I is played with Violetta sitting at a dressing table getting ready for the party. She sees her own ghost in the mirror as the overture begins, giving the audience no doubt about the fact that she is already terminally ill.

    One thing that modern audiences don’t appreciate however is that tuberculosis was not understood at all in the mid 19th century. Koch did not discover the bacillus responsible until 1882, and until then there was a commonly-held folk myth that it was some sort of venereal disease. It was also said to make women look more beautiful, and that may be the point of Alfredo’s comment.

    My reading of it all is that Violetta herself knows she’s very ill, but I can’t decide whether Alfredo does. The text refers to him visiting her during her illness (before Act I starts) but that doesn’t mean he knows what’s really going on. Some say he’s a kind soul who wants to look after her despite her illness, others that he can’t see because he’s blinded by love.
    Who knows?

    Peter

  6. […] Centre. The critics might carp that a season of three operas that includes both this one and La Traviata isn’t exactly radical scheduling, but WNO has to cope with economic realities and they need […]

  7. […] best of the three operas WNO are presenting in the current season; you can read about the other two here and […]

  8. […] example, in this September 2009 review of a performance of La Traviata by Welsh National Opera I […]

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