Opéra National de Paris
Act I of a new Traviata at the Paris Opera, with Damrau and Demuro
© Elisa Haberer/Opéra National de Paris 2014
The last production of Verdi's Traviataat the Paris Opera was back in 2007, when director Christoph Marthaler infuriated and fascinated audiences in equal measure (reviewed in OPERA NEWS, Aug. 2007). This season, Paris Opera director Nicolas Joel entrusted the new staging to Benoît Jacquot, who had a great local success with his production of Massenet's Werther. Diana Damrau was the star of the new Traviata, conducted by Daniel Oren (seen June 9).
This was a show designed for stellar revivals, to comfort rather than shock the public — it is scheduled to open the 2014–15 season in September — but it made for a dull evening. The treatment of the chorus was particularly poor. The immobile ranks of darkly dressed Victorians perhaps represented a moral judgment or the omnipresence of death, but this approach bypassed the need for any detailed direction by the producer. Poor mezzo Anna Pennisi, as Flora, was left to party single-handed; the festive and inquisitive chorus singing in Act I was sapped of energy. This gloomy backdrop was dominated by Violetta's elaborate working-girl's bed, backed by Manet's painting of Olympia with her black maid — an image that evidently inspired Jacquot to heavily black up the Annina of mezzo Cornelia Oncioiu, which seemed in the poorest of minstrel taste.
Strangely for a soprano with numerous accolades for her proficiency in coloratura, Damrau had the least success with Act I. "Ah, fors'è lui" was pulled out of shape by an excess of well-intentioned rubato from the soprano and maestro Oren, threatening to grind to a halt. It was followed by a "Sempre libera" that lacked sparkle and brilliance despite being crowned with a confident altissimo. The decision to place tenor Francesco Demuro's Alfredo in the body of the theater for his offstage lines did not help, giving him the wrong aural prominence for the final pages of Violetta's scena. Oren's love for the score and his respect for the singers were never in doubt, but he generally larded the score with too many moments of indulgent Romanticism and sounded in need of a dose of rhythmic vigor.
Act II fared better, with the stage divided into two halves — the country scene romantically set under a bowing tree, while opposite it, Flora's party staircase waited patiently, confining the action to half of the stage for both scenes. Demuro was a personable Alfredo, with a good timbre and a fine top, lacking only memorable phrasing and power for the gambling scene. Damrau was magnificent in her defiant confrontation with Ludovic Tézier's Germont, which drew the finest of singing from both artists. The French baritone was in his very best voice, and his long-breathed delivery of "Di Provenza" brought the longest ovation of the evening in a performance to set beside those of the great baritones of all time. The staging's conception of an arthritic Germont suited Tézier's reserved stage presence. As a backdrop for Violetta's public humiliation in the following scene, Flora's party featured a lively dance of bearded Gypsies and girl toreadors in front of the same expressionless guests who attended the party in Act I.
The Act I baldachin returned in a state of ruin in the last act, with Violetta dying nearby on a small invalid's bed. Assured by the resonant doctor of bass Nicolas Testé, Damrau hit her top form, with miraculous long phrases and a masterful control of dynamics. Jacquot bathed the stage in light as Violetta imagined her recovery, promoting the courtesan's death to an unlikely saintly assumption. Damrau's calculated, thoroughly modern Violetta needs a firmer directorial hand and a more rigorous conductor to fulfill its tragic potential.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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