Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille - Friday May 23, 2003

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Jonathan Miller. Violetta Valery: Patricia Racette. Flora Bervoix: Svetlana Lifar. Annina: Allison Cook. Alfredo Germont: Tito Beltran. Giorgio Germont: Roberto Frontali. Gastone: Mihajlo Arsenski. Barone Douphol: Michael Druiett. Marchese d'Obigny: Yuri Kissin. Dottor Grenvil: Christian Tréguier.

My approach to La Traviata is to fear the worst, in the hopes of a nice surprise. It has never yet worked.

Jonathan Millers' career can only, to me, be understood in the UK context. His Paris production of La Traviata was everything UK critics like: no ideas*, mediocre, "realistic" scenery, ugly, ill-fitting costumes, an occasional touch of feeble humor, choreography worse than feeble... Last night at the Bastille we were practically transported to London.

It's a cliché to say that the role of Violetta requires at least two kinds of soprano, and that singers can rarely deliver. Unfairly, as for so many roles, we all tend to have Callas in mind. Patricia Racette has a powerful voice - perhaps more so than we expect in this work - rich in harmonics and with a metallic edge a little reminiscent of Beverly Sills. She had a fair stab at the first act. Rather like Caballé late in her career, Racette has no problem with the top notes provided they're "prepared," i.e. that there's a decent run up; when she has to attack them point blank, the result is a scream. But our verdict at the end of act one was that the remaining acts would be better, and they were. With proper direction (in this production, there was no sign of acting, just conventional hand-on-the-heart gestures) and without the hideous sets, Racette could be excellent.

Tito Baltran got off to a wobbly start, steadied a little, but had faded before the end of act one. By the time he stormed off after arguing with his father his voice was reduced to a tinny thread, drowned by the orchestra. Should he be singing roles like this? Mightn't he do better in Donizetti?

Roberto Frontali opened strongly as Giorgio Germont and the first half of his confrontation with Violetta was, if you closed your eyes and forgot Violetta's amazing gingerbread house (recycled from Hansel & Gretel?) and Kitsch painted backdrop, complete with painted peacock on balustrade, one of the evening's better moments. But he too faded out in the second half of this scene, having perhaps made too much effort in the first.

Forget the Spanish dancers. This was a dreary, sparsely-attended party and somehow Miller managed to get the Paris chorus to look as embarrassed and unconvincing, as sensuous Andalucian gypsies, as any London chorus ladies. This was the swaying, eye-rolling, rose-between-the-lips - hands-on-the-hips style often seen in Carmen. "Choreography," rather amazingly credited in the programme, was limited to lifting one foot, then the other, and waving arms above heads.

I can't describe the final act. By this time I'd left to secure a table for dinner. Patricia Racette (not to mention Verdi and Violetta Valéry) deserved better. Come to think of it, dinner wasn't too good, either...

And I forgot the mention: Violetta's consumption was infectious and spread faster than SARS. There was a great deal more coughing and loud nose-blowing in the audience than on stage.

*Not true. There is an idea: the final act takes place in a hospital run by nuns. But it came too late for me; I was already on my way to the Brasserie and a Sauerkraut with Riesling.

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