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Bob Bernard's Corner: Violetta Agonistes

Romanticism vs. Expressionism

By Bob Bernard

La Traviata has a great deal of visceral appeal, whether it is staged as a purely realistic, romantic entity or as a minimalist, expressionistic vision. A comparison between recordings from the LA Opera (LAO) 2006 production (stage direction by Marta Domingo) and Salzburg’s 2005 production (stage direction by Willy Decker, a Professor of Musical Theater) makes for an elucidating, side-by-side comparison.

LAO’s cast featured Renée Fleming, Rolando Villazón, and Renato Bruson; Salzburg’s cast was Anna Netrebko, Villazón (yes, in both), and Thomas Hampson. LAO’s production was warmly romantic; Salzburg’s was expressionistic, with an occasional twist of existentialism.

The overture offers an immediate contrast: LAO’s is conventional, the orchestra playing it with a lowered curtain, the looming presence of death embedded in the music; the Salzburg production has the approaching of death reinforced by the addition of two additional characters: (1) the physical manifestation of death as an actor, and (2) a clock as an ominous relentless reminder of Violetta’s mortality.

Salzburg’s bare stage is without a curtain, having a single entrance on stage right and with the clock situated near stage left, the curved stage being a metaphor for the arc of time. Violetta enters during the overture and haltingly approaches Death, who courts her, presenting her with a camellia – the flower being an homage to La Dame aux Camélias, the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils which inspired the opera’s libretto.

Act One’s opening brindisi, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” ("Let’s drink from the joyful cups"), was staged traditionally by LAO: period costumes and set. Salzburg’s staging combined expressionistic costuming (Violetta wore a red dress, emblematic of her being a courtesan) and had Violetta’s existentialistic outlook on life be reflected in the costuming. Violetta is seen only interacting with (apparent) male figures (the chorus’s harmonic content being maintained by having the female choristers dressed in men’s clothing).

Act Two’s opening song by Alfredo, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti / Il giovanile ardore” ("The youthful ardor of my ebullient spirits"), was staged traditionally by LAO. Salzburg’s staging – minimalist – had both Alfredo and Violetta in white (underwear), symbolic of the purity of their love. Along with this there were floral fabrics draped about the lovers, the (few) set pieces and (even) the clock, the warmth of the fabrics reinforcing the recollection of the loving times the two of them had been experiencing. Anna Netrebko added substantially to Alfredo’s aria with her proactive involvement.

In the following scene, where Giorgio Germont makes a compelling argument for Violetta to terminate her relationship with Alfredo (“Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia”), LAO’s use of period costumes, set against a fully accoutered apartment, reinforces the person-to-person interaction of this family situation.

In the Salzburg production, when acceding to Giorgio Germont’s plea to leave Alfredo, Netrebko’s Violetta– the warmth soon to leave her life – mimics this circumstance by discarding her own warm floral covering, as well as removing the coverings of the set pieces, and then reassuming the red dress of the courtesan.

In scene two of the second act, LAO stages the party at Flora’s house beginning with the chorus accompanying a Gypsy Girl sextet of dancers, followed by a Matador number that uses a single male dancer. LAO staged both numbers as pure entertainment.

For the Salzburg production the above scene was transmogrified into a prolonged existentialistic nightmare for Alfredo, both the Gypsy Dance and Matador number now cruelly referenced to his personal situation: The Gypsy Dance now a grotesque solo performed by a male in drag and the Matador dance now having Alfredo mocked as a cuckold – the chorus humiliating Alfredo by forcibly placing the image of the horns of a defeated male bull upon him.

The despair of Violetta at the close of her third act aria “Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti” ("Farewell, lovely, happy dreams of the past") was interpreted differently in these two productions:

  1. At aria’s end, Renée Fleming lies on the floor in complete despair for LAO’s production, while
  2. Anna Netrebko, flashing a tired smile, now welcomes the inevitable by having her head rest on the shoulder of Death (although Death – with his back to her – indicates that it is not quite time)

For the moment of Violetta’s death, our two productions reflect their respective philosophical orientations:

  1. Salzburg’s existentialistic bent is completed with Netrebko alone at the moment of death, while
  2. LAO concludes this most romantic of operas with Alfredo embracing Fleming as she dies.

These two productions, one traditional and romantic, the other expressionistic and (sometimes) existential, demonstrate that extremes of interpretation – if done well – can both honor the work at hand.

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