Tuesday, January 15, 2013

La Traviata at La Monnaie, Brussels – More Disturbing Than Shocking

Šaturová as Violetta
The Brussels staging of La Traviata by Andrea Breth generated quite a bit of controversy. I found it relatively unpleasant but not terribly shocking, and I am glad I saw/heard it, though I might not visit it again. Here they are depicting a more realistic grimy underworld of prostitution and drugs versus a more standard romanticized 18th Century series of ever-so-slightly decadent, but elegant formal parties. 

The staging definitely is uncomfortable, especially in the party scenes. The female nudity is more depressing than erotic; perhaps the stark black and white setting serves to distance us. But I think the point could be made without so much overt S&M activity. It wouldn't take much compromise to make this less controversial. Then again, why should the director and company compromise their vision?  (That’s a rhetorical question, but I don't mind if a discussion/argument breaks out here.)

It was disconcerting that the chorus (who sang beautifully) was offstage, creating a disconnect between sound and sight. I’d have opted for a tinier chorus, all on stage. In Act 2, I’d cut the opening choruses, too. They didn’t make much sense with just a few people wandering about being S&M-ish. Again, topless women are no big deal in Europe, and the more I think about it, the S&M was stylized and almost cartoonish; so, not shocking, just kind of yucky. 

I was annoyed by Annina (as it turns out to be; we don’t know it yet) doing coke and stumbling about the stage during Sempre libera. It was clearly an intentional distraction, probably to remind us of the life Violetta is oddly reluctant to give up. Most scenes had extraneous action depicting drug use and/or prostitution. I wanted to shout, “I get the point!” Of course, the video director forces us to pay attention to things we could sidestep in the theater. 

Annina, Germont, Alfredo,
Violetta, and Some Guy.
Violetta is the classiest dame on stage. But in this culture, women are a commodity, and the men barely treat her any better  than they treat the rest of the women (with disdain and disrespect). In the final scene  (she is dying in an alley, wrapped in plastic sheetingicky but effective), even Dr. Grenvil has nothing but contempt for her; he takes her pulse, drops her arm as if touching her is repulsive, and steps over her to depart, not even sticking around for her actual death. (Thankfully, they cut, as most productions do, the final, "she's dead! alas!" bits of singing.)

Actually what I find most offensive about this production is that neither Germont sings terribly well. To put across a controversial production it's essential for the performance to be musically convincing.
Sébastien Guèze is youthful and attractive (cute) as Alfredo, but maybe not ready to sing this part. Most of the time he seems to be over-singing, with a forced-sounding vibrato. Scott Hendricks as his father also sings a bit roughly. However, both were 
dramatically convincing. Alfredo is a real kid—maybe barely 20—and totally impetuous. And Germont is a young-ish Dad—it seems he and Violetta may be contemporaries (there’s even a bit of erotic tension between them.) 

Act 2, Scene II
The vocal highlight (as it should be) is Simona Šaturová as Violetta. She may not be a superstar, but she possesses a strong, accurate, affecting, and effortless voice. (In this production, I'd find it difficult to worry about Violetta if she were a big name star.) Her vocalism is solid and she conveys love, sadness, ennui, fear, and resignation—but appropriately, not much joy.

The La Monnaie orchestra, led by Ádám Fischer supports the singers and action ably. Fischer has a way of lightening and clarifying Verdi's sometimes clunky orchestration. He is sensitive and flexible—allowing his singers plenty of room to emote—pushing a bit here, pulling a bit there, and always heightening the drama. Intellectually, I appreciate this performance so much, but viscerally I wish for a teensy bit more glamour—or at least a bit less grittiness.

If you're at all interested in contemporary opera staging, take a look at this. You can see it free online at ARTE Live Web for a few more months (no subtitles, but it’s easy enough to track down an English libretto.) You also can see it till January 25 at the Monnaie website (French or Dutch subtitles.) That site also has articles and discussions specifically about the controversy surrounding the production, and more generally about freedom of artistic expression. Thanks to OperaJournal for calling our attention to this fascinating, if not completely successful interpretation of a classic opera.

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