Verdi – La Traviata

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 10 2006

Conductor: Stéphane Denève. Production, sets, costumes and lighting: Karl-Ernst & Ursel Herrmann. Violetta Valéry: Virginia Tola. Alfredo Germont: James Valenti. Giorgio Germont: José van Dam. Flora Bervoix: Natascha Petrinsky. Annina: Marielle Moeskops. Gastone,Visconte di Letorières: Alexander Oliver. Barone Douphol: Shadi Torbey. Marchese d’Obigny: Pierre Doyen. Dottor Grenvil: Jacques Does. Orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie.

“A solid, provincial Traviata” doesn’t sound very flattering, but take it in a positive way and it just about sums up this 1987 production revived by La Monnaie. For Brussels, the staging is unusually traditional and straightforward, without falling into Zeffirellian excess or Kitsch, and the cast is more one of definite promise (with the exception of Germont) than of international stars.

The sets are firmly Second Empire: machine-age faux luxe. Act one takes place in an oval saloon with walls and shallow dome upholstered in quilted pink silk, a brown dado with a touch of gilding, a marble chimneypiece with a tall pier glass, etched glass doors and a huge dinner table waiting for the guests. The crowd scenes successfully recreate the atmosphere of louche, demi-monde gaiety described so often in Zola (and probably in Alexandre Dumas fils: I admit I’ve never read the book or visited the grave), and Violetta is more obviously a prostitute, showing a great deal of stockinged leg and making up to the messieurs, than is often the case (the sordid nature of this story is traditionally swept under a romantic carpet, as with La Bohème).

Act two opens with huge conservatory windows looking out over a snowy garden with pollarded tree trunks and a lake with boats. Alfredo throws a snowball against the glass as he makes his entry with a brace of partridge slung over his shoulder. Flora’s dining-room is that oval space, this time draped with crimson silk; at the rear, a little stage with the kind of tacky, grivois show going on that you can still find to this day in Montmartre and the Marais. The use of strong footlights created an effect that easily brought to mind Degas and Lautrec. And finally, Violetta’s bedroom was in fact her former dining room again, with the chandelier and pier glass now bagged in black and a bed, like a catafalque, in the middle of the room where the dining table had been.

Violetta was played as possibly stronger-willed than usual, rebelling more against her fate. The Argentine soprano Virginia Tola has an interesting, complex voice: a grainy soprano with rich harmonics and a hint of darkness. She was less at ease, both vocally and as an actress, in the “gay abandon” of Gioir than in the more tragic Dite alla giovine and above all her death-bed scene, which are better-placed for her voice: the top notes and agility of Gioir were a touch beyond her means (nothing unusual in that, though). James Valenti, a young American, makes a taller, darker, more handsome Alfredo than we usually get, and has a pleasant lyric voice and some acting ability, though no very firm presence.

José Van Dam’s years of experience are now devoted entirely to keeping the notes under control: the remains of a voice. He was booed a little at the end, very unexpected in his home house – indeed, probably the first time I’ve ever heard booing at La Monnaie. Also unexpected was what seemed to me to be routine playing from the orchestra under Stéphane Denève. Perhaps the rest of the audience agreed: the applause for him was polite, not rapturous.

But still, a good, solid Traviata, better than any other I can remember seeing, that would be just as much at home in Bordeaux or Baltimore as in Brussels.

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