Thursday, September 27, 2012

La Traviata, Salzburg 2005: I Have a Theory, and it's Mine

Probably no one needs to say anything more about the Willy Decker production of La Traviata. But I never let that stop me before, and with a blog called “Regie, or Not Regie?” I feel obligated to address it. In this post, I will present several theories, answer a few questions, and make a suggestion.

Spoiler alert: I love this opera, I love this production, and I love this performance. I think it’s the perfect gateway opera into Regie. At the same time, this production does set high musical and dramatic standards; loving this might set one up for disappointment later.

Theory 1: Anyone calling this E***t**** either didn't pay attention, or hasn't seen it.

This is more than a theory. It's a very strong opinon the truth!

Theory 2: It's a flashback.

Violetta is dying or possibly already dead at the prelude, and the opera is a flashback from her point of view. I paraphrase my Dad when I say this opera is not all about drinking, dancing, gambling, and glittery parties, it’s about death. Other than Alfredo—her one true love—and Germont, everyone in her life is a blur (thus the generic suits for everyone else). This also would explain the blank white set. “Walk toward the light, Violetta.” The flashback (or hallucination) concept also explains to me the nightmarishness of the masqueraders in Act 2 and the festival partiers (not usually on stage) in Act 3.

Theory 3: It's all about Violetta.

The rest of the cast is wearing identical men’s suits because in Violetta’s world (or flashback), men are her source of enjoyment, sustenance, and survival; and she is the only woman who matters. This explains the ickiness for her (and for some viewers) when the dude shows up in the red dress, and again when they put the dress on the next “Violetta.” She is mocked, then replaced. (Personally I find the masked chorus ickier than the dude in the dress, but we will leave my fear of masks for another post...or not at all.)

Theory 4: If you are not intrigued/engaged/fascinated (choose all that apply) by the end of the prelude, this production actually may not be for you.

Anna Netrebko is a strong actress, and the action during the prelude really sets the tone for the rest of the opera. In this performance, the drama is front and center. (Well, that and the music.) You pretty much have to focus on the actors in this production—no drifting off and counting the crystals in the chandelier, or wondering how many ruffles are on Violetta’s dress. No action or prop is gratuitous. There is a lot of symbolism, but it’s possible to enjoy the production without thinking too hard.  Of course, if you do think about it, it’s even better! And there is no denying the magnetism between Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, the “Traumpaar.” Watching them together is drama enough; the singing is a marvelous bonus.

A few other non-literal items seem to baffle many viewers:

1. Why is Alfredo on stage when he shouldn’t be at the end of Act 1? 
      Why can’t Violetta think he is there? He is the reason she is singing all this crazy coloratura! It's kind of a cinematic effect, that we see her inner thoughts as she expresses them in her aria.

2. Why is Violetta is on stage when she shouldn’t be in Act 2?
      I think there are two answers to that one. If we follow my theory that it’s Violetta’s flashback, she really needs to be there, much as Senta is always present in Kupfer’s Fliegende Holländer. Or, why not accept that we are seeing Alfredo's inner thoughts as sings rapturously about his new-found (and first and greatest) love, just as we see into Violetta’s mind in Act 1? (Don't you just love how I keep answering questions with questions?)

3. Why do they have to be in their underwear? 
      They don’t. But my, they do look good, so why not? It’s still within the bounds of good taste. I mean, they don't actually f... um have sex on stage.

Most people (even if they haven’t seen it) either love this production or hate it. If you are not sure yet, I highly recommend the following:

1.   Look at the “making of” video on YouTube (it’s hard to find the deluxe DVD release that has that feature on it.) That helped me get inside this performance. Part 1 is below. (Note added 03/11/2017.  Of course the YT video is gone. You can now see the documentary on; however it's not free; you have to have a subscription.)

2.   Don't spend too much time looking at other excerpts on YouTube. Seeing the Brindisi  and Sepre libera out of context left me totally unprepared for the full impact of this production.

3.   Rent, borrow, or buy it; then watch it.  Now! 

The Behind the Scenes special
offers helpful insight to the production.


  1. I have been searching reviews in vain for any mention of the fact that, lifted out of the context of its period, the plot of this opera is not credible. It's inconceivable that this modern floozie of a Violetta is going to give up her boyfriend because his stuffy old man is worried about the family reputation. By the mores of the original social milieu, acted with all the conflicting values and emotions entailed, this story is poignant and tragic. In this update it is inexplicable and ridiculous.

    1. Well, I understand what you're saying, but I have to disagree on three points.

      1. I see this production set not necessarily to "modern" time of the 21st century, but placed in a more timeless time frame. The set and costuming (of everyone but Violetta) is fairly period-neutral. And time frame was already an issue for Verdi before he was even able to present the opera. He wanted it set in his current time, but to appease censors, he had to move it back 100 years.

      2. There are families in all times and places who intervene in their kids’ lives because they have problems with the child’s partner of choice for one or another reason (wrong class, wrong race, wrong sex, wrong religion, etc.) I think removing the opera from a specific period makes the message of self-sacrifice for one’s beloved more universal. (I happen to vehemently disagree with Giorgio Germont, however. He needs to look out for the happiness of his children and worry less about “what will people think?”!)

      3. Violetta is generally viewed as the "courtesan with a heart of gold." Even in the recent Brussels staging, she seems to realize that her lifestyle is not a healthy one for Alfredo (and trust me, it’s not healthy for pretty much anybody). Someone who truly loves another often will sacrifice personal well-being and/or happiness for their beloved.

      Thanks for reading and for writing!


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