Friday, June 2, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Count Down" (on Francesco Maria Piave's and Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata)

count down

by Douglas Messerli

Francesco Maria Piave (libretto, after the play La dame aux camellias, by Alexandre Dumas fils), Giuseppe Verdi (music), Willy Decker (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) La Traviata / 2012 [The Met Opera HD-live broadcast]

In this Willy Decker / Wolfgang Gussman production of Verdi’s standard, there is no consumptive coughing, no overdressed man and women attending the red-plumaged Violetta. Bringing the story into a more contemporary period, the director and designer have established from the outset—through the presence of a gigantic, surrealist-like clock, that the consumptive courtesan’s time is short. The entire set, in fact, appears as a giant waiting room with a long, curving cement-like embankment and an elliptical mezzanine where the choruses, a bit like observing doctors, can look down upon the theater of operation, Violetta’s “apartment,” wherein she plays out the short life she has yet to live.
     In some respects, this expressionistic set overstates everything, and certainly does not allow any dramatic tension about the inevitability of the plot. But it does free up the characters to symbolically enact a ritual which, after all, is not about story in the first place, but centered on the intense musical relationships of the three major characters: Violetta (Natalie Dessay), Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani), and his father Giorgio (Dimitri Hvorostovsky).
     Dessay, a trained actress, begins the opera as a performer about to go on stage, the way many have described Judy Garland offstage just before her entry, her small frame suddenly rising into a figure slightly larger than life. Violetta, having recovered from a recent consumptive attack, is weak, not at all sure she might be able to attend the party she is throwing that night. But bit by bit she pulls together, transforming herself into the party girl in short red dress her guests—men and women all dressed in black and white suits—have come to expect. This “bacchanal,” however, is closer to a mined performance of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge than it is to Verdi’s original salon party. The champagne they drink is from empty glasses, the camellia obviously a silk flower. Dessay has not only to sing of “Sempre libera degg’io,” but, raised and lowered, on a red couch, must balance herself and dance upon the prop. She is, in short, less a consumptive woman confined to a couch than a jumping, singing acrobat. And any joys she may have in her party-life seem those that come from a successful theatrical performance than a lust for life. If Dessay was contrite, during the intermission, for having missed one of her high notes, it was easy for her appreciative audience to forgive her given her otherwise beautiful singing during her energetic apologia to the “good life.”

    It is little wonder that we find her, in the second act, having capitulated, escaping with Alfredo to the country. In the flower laden landscape of Alfredo’s world, Violetta becomes almost young again, wrapped in a flower-laden housecoat, playing hide-and-seek among the flower-covered couches. Indeed, she becomes one with the couches, becomes herself something and someone other than her former self. In this production it is immediately apparent why Violetta has given up her Parisian life; even the dreadful clock, ticking down the hours left to her, is half-covered in the same pattern, and the elliptical has become a kind of garden. The snake creeps into this paradisiacal world with her servant’s revelation that Violetta is selling her Paris belongings to support her country life. Alfred is determined to rectify the situation, rushing off to Paris, allowing the more horrific Satan, Alfredo’s bourgeois father Giorgio, time to destroy her momentary joy in life.
     For Giorgio, Violetta is, at first, nothing more than a selfish courtesan out to steal his son’s money and affections. Gradually, however, when that vision proves difficult to sustain, he employs the usual tricks of men who cannot escape the petty limitations of a societally controlled life: his beautiful daughter will lose her fiancĂ© if Alberto does not return home. Crueler yet, Giorgio tells Violetta of her own destiny, her loss of beauty and betrayal, perhaps, by Alfredo himself. As Violetta notes, the punishment for her libertine lifestyle comes not from God but from man. Even Giorgio, however, finally comes to recognize Violetta’s sacrifice, singing in a beautiful aria (Hvorostovsky at the top of his form) of her love and generosity.
     So pure is Violetta’s love that she agrees, most reluctantly, to give up Alfredo and return to Paris, knowing now that her fate will be an early death. Accepting an invitation to her friend Flora’s costume ball, she pretends to take up once more with her former protector Baron Bouphol.

     While in Verdi’s original, the costume ball was replete with gypsies and bullfighters, the new Met version has mixed these with costumed performers from the partygoers, along with a male dressed as Violetta in mockery of her return to their world. If the whole scene is a kind of confusing mish-mash at times, it still makes more sense than the presence of these “types” at the grand ball, and their taunting tales only reiterate what we know, Violetta’s life as a grand courtesan is over. The clock itself is now transformed into a gambling table where Alfredo, who in revenge has rushed back to Paris, wins, tossing his winnings at and stuffing them into Violetta’s orifices in what is clearly a kind of capitalist rape. Even Giorgio, having followed his son to the party, is shocked by Alfredo’s behavior, but then propriety is at the heart of his torturous demands.
     The party-goers, now carnival celebrants, reenter this cold waiting room once again, this time with another women, clad in red dress, strapped to the clock. Violetta is no longer the life of the party; she has almost been drained of life.
     Sick and suffering, with just a few hours to live, she awaits the return of Alfredo who, having survived his duel with the Baron, has discovered the truth of Violetta’s abandonment and has written of her determination to see her once again. As in any grand opera, the lovers reunite to imagine the possibility of life as they once lived it, a reunification that the audience has known is impossible from the start. For a second, just before her death, the courtesan is relieved of all pain and age, until she faints away, both Alfredo and Giorgio left to face their own failures of faith in her love.  
     Some of the subtlety of this opera may have been lost in the symbolic posturings of Decker’s and Gussman’s vision, but the overall dramatic impact, particularly in Dessay’s powerful performance, remains, and La Traviata seldom wavers in its musical splendor as this grand courtesan had in her past.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2012
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2012).

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