Dessay; Castronovo, Tézier; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, Langrée. Production: Sivadier. Virgin Classics 730798 9 (DVD), 139 mins., subtitled
At the start of this Traviata,to the heart-tugging strains of the prelude, a handful of unfamiliar figures in modern dress mill about and strike poses on the nearly bare stage of Aix-en-Provence's outdoor Théâtre de l'Archevêché. The evening's prima donna, Natalie Dessay, plops down in a chair, dons a pair of spike-heeled boots, adjusts her (unflattering) makeup, pops a pill and signals conductor Louis Langrée to launch into Act I. As all of this unfolded, I couldn't help wondering what this production was about. At its end, I was little the wiser.
Director Jean-François Sivadier has described his staging as "an actor's game" intended to "present a mirror to the public," a parable about "being mortal but aspiring to live." To that end, he offers a sleekly artificial theatrical frame in which it's never fully clear just who these people are: is the leading lady really sick? Is it she or Violetta who has a thing for much younger, more heavily made-up men? And why is nearly everyone so fond of glitter? It's best to look at Sivadier's show, at his suggestion, as a series of scene studies, and as such it's often very well wrought: individual scenes play much better than the whole. There are arresting images — the balletic "Parigi, o cara," for instance, with Alfredo cradling a limp-limbed Violetta; and, a few minutes later, at "Oh gioia!," Violetta's hypnotically wide-eyed stagger downstage before her final collapse.
Both these moments are charged with Dessay's histrionic power, which never fails her throughout an evening that keeps her mostly onstage front-and-center; over and over, she brings the sting of emotional truth to her Violetta, despite the conceits imposed on her by the staging. As strict vocalism, though, her performance is less convincing. She's on record as saying she saved the role for the latter stretch of her career, when her voice, she hoped, would have developed the body to project beyond the Act I fireworks. That, alas, hasn't quite happened: Dessay sang her first Violetta at age forty-four and this one, in 2011, at forty-six, and what I hear is an instrument that's lost its ease on top without gaining much (if any) presence down below. Still, after some worrisome As early in "Un dì felice," she sounds in much better form here than she did, nine months later, on broadcasts from her cancellation-ridden run at the Met; and there are many pages where the lovely timbre and acute artistry shine cherishably through.
She's blessed with able colleagues. Charles Castronovo makes a handsome, headstrong Alfredo (who, like his ladylove, is fond of swigging fifths of vodka); he sings his music with a lovely, forthright lyricism and fine control when he's not tested by the higher reaches of "O mio rimorso." Ludovic Tézier has a perfect voice and presence for Papa Germont, though he ignores most of the role's copious dynamic markings and the call for staccatos in "No, non udrai." (Both those expendable cabalettas are accorded a single verse, while "Ah, fors'è lui" and "Addio del passato" merit a still-uncommon two.) The supporting cast is vivid and good, with Adelina Scarabelli maximizing her near-constant presence as Annina and Kostas Smoriginas presenting an unusually sympathetic, and sexy, Douphol. Langrée leads the London Symphony in a fully simpatico account of the score, and the photography is superb; the sound quality is less so (probably a fault of the tricky outdoor acoustics). But forget these peripheral pros and cons: if you like Dessay, you'll want this Traviata and put up with — maybe even enjoy — everything else.
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