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Damrau, Pennisi, Oncioiu; Demuro, Tezier; Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Paris, Ciampa. Production: Jacquot. Erato 46166503, 145 mins., subtitled
SOPRANO DIANA DAMRAU'S REMARKABLY DETAILED, beautifully sung performance as Violetta is the main reason to recommend this DVD of filmmaker Benoît Jacquot’s spare production of Verdi’s familiar La Traviata for Opéra National de Paris. Damrau’s voice has matured and darkened a bit in the last few years, and she’s one of the few sopranos today that have the coloratura ability required for Act I as well as the lushness required for the long and emotionally difficult music of Acts II and III. Damrau has given us a very personal take on this character; she is a sicker woman than usual in Act I, having not just one but several fainting spells while trying to host her party. Dr. Grenvil (Nicolas Teste) hovers about her through the scene, and examines her breathing during the opening prelude. “Sempre Libera” is an internal battle for Violetta’s soul rather than mere coloratura fireworks. There is bitterness rather than joy in returning to her old life. It works beautifully.
Damrau also personalizes the role by playing it as a series of discoveries. In Act III, the dawning revelation that she is doomed, despite Alfredo’s return, is played as a slow and terrifying realization. In Damrau’s eyes and in her voice, we see and hear her fear and frustration. She sings both verses of “Addio, del passato” with tonal beauty and a stunning variety of colors.
Unfortunately, Jacquot’s production, while supporting a fine sense of intimacy for the singers, makes a number of missteps. The chorus, both men and women, are costumed as Victorian men in long gray coats with their arms crossed, immobile. I assume this was meant to represent society’s condemnation of Violetta, but it prevents the chorus from being real party guests either at Violetta’s or later at Flora’s. Much more egregious is the use of blackface on Annina, Romanian mezzo Cornelia Oncioiu, presumably to match Manet’s painting “Olympia” which hangs over Violetta’s bed, showing a white woman lounging, attended by a black maid. I find this choice utterly tasteless and inexplicable. If you need Annina to be black, are there no black mezzos you could have hired? The transvestite matadors and gypsies in the entertainment at Flora’s party were genuinely amusing but added nothing to the storytelling.
Francesco Demuro sang ardently and looked great as Alfredo, but simply couldn’t match Damrau’s passionate acting skills. He seemed stiff and, in close up, his physical effort in singing was difficult to watch. Ludovic Tézier was a stalwart and somewhat tactful Germont, pouring out generous tone and fatherly affection. Conductor Francesco Ivan Ciampa supported the singers well (though I would have appreciated less rubato), but he stretched out the opening and Act III preludes virtually beyond recognition. Particularly in the latter, every line ended with a pause, and the musical continuity seemed in danger of grinding to a halt.
There was fine playing and singing from the Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Paris. Despite its many flaws, this DVD is worth seeing for Damrau’s spectacular Violetta. —Henson Keys
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