Teatro alla Scala
Shock of novelty: Beczala, Lučić, Zampieri and Damrau in Tcherniakov's Traviata at La Scala
Brescia/Amisano © Teatro alla Scala 2014
For the first time ever, Verdi's Traviata was chosen to open the season at La Scala. The new production, by Russian director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov, featured no Italian singers in the leading roles. The result was undeniably different from what audiences are used to here, but it was also rather dull and disconnected once the initial shock of novelty had worn off. The third performance — seen on December 15 — received relatively tepid applause, although there was warm appreciation for the protagonist Diana Damrau at the final curtain, combined with angry protests directed at the Milanese conductor Daniele Gatti.
Tcherniakov is recognizably Russian in that he seems to adhere to Stanislavsky's concept of the invisible "fourth wall" separating the players from the public. Almost all the soliloquies were addressed not to the audience but to another character onstage. Violetta's Act I musings were confided to a cigar-smoking Annina (performed by the veteran prima donna Mara Zampieri), and much of Alfredo's aria was sung for the benefit of Violetta herself, with whom he took turns in rolling the pastry in their large country-house kitchen. Alfredo (played by tenor Piotr Beczala) was often onstage before his official entrances — disconcertingly so during Flora's party, where there was no sign of any Gypsies or matadors. The soprano's "Addio del passato" was presented as a soliloquy, but the director turned it into a sort of mad-scene for a crazily depressed (rather than consumptive) woman who has just taken an overdose of drugs. This directorial whim gave Damrau a further opportunity to demonstrate her versatility onstage, but it drained the conclusion of the opera of most of its pathos. And it was hardly any easier to identify with the brittle (possibly bisexual) society hostess in Act I or the hyperactive, unsophisticated Hausfrau into which she metamorphosed in the first half of Act II. There was little psychological connection between these different Violettas; the logic of Verdi and Piave's dramaturgy was consistently weakened, rather than tightened up (the updating of the action did not help), causing boredom to set in early in the evening, in spite of Damrau's plucky energy and her limpid, generally accurate vocalization. Although she is a proficient actress, Damrau seemed rather too full in figure and healthy-looking for this role, and the range of facial expression and vocal color at her disposal is relatively limited.
Like many directors today, Tcherniakov finds it difficult to feel for Alfredo, who here is made (in spite of his words of repentance) to repeat his loutish behavior toward Violetta at the end of the Act II ensemble and appears entirely hypocritical — laden with flowers and pastries — in his Act III reunion with the woman he used to love. In such a context, it was difficult for Beczala to capture the character's tenderness, spontaneity and increasing self-knowledge. He sang with a secure technique and a fair range of nuance but never phrased in a truly arresting manner, in spite of a showy cadenza introduced between the two verses of his cabaletta.
It was left to the Germont, baritone Željko Lučić, to remind us — through vocal coloring and facial expression — that we were watching a tragedy. In another context, he could prove an interesting Germont, although he needs to bind the ornaments more smoothly into the legato line.
Daniele Gatti did not help him much with his exaggerated tempos — Germont's aria and cabaletta were both too fast to make their proper effect — and his sometimes excessively loud accompaniments, which in Alfredo's cabaletta and "Amami, Alfredo" were quite out of proportion with the volume of the voices. Although the conductor had clearly looked carefully at the score (and some details contained in Fabrizio Della Seta's critical edition were tellingly revealed), his overall approach was too cerebral and calculated, and the string-playing in particular lacked any sense of emotional involvement. The chorus was musically efficient but lent a rather forced vitality to the party scenes, in which the vulgarity of Elena Zaytseva's costumes clashed embarrassingly with the music.
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