Verdi - La Traviata

ONP Paris Bastille, Saturday June 14 2014

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Benoît Jacquot. Sets: Sylvain Chauvelot. Costumes: Christian Gasc. Lighting: André Diot. Violetta Valéry: Diana Damrau. Flora Bervoix: Anna Pennisi. Annina: Cornelia Oncioiu. Alfredo Germont: Francesco Demuro. Giorgio Germont: Ludovic Tézier. Gastone: Gabriele Mangione. Il Barone Douphol: Fabio Previati. Il Marchese d’Obigny: Igor Gnidii. Dottore Grenvil: Nicolas Testé. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

It looked, with this new production of La Traviata, as if Nicolas Joël intended to mark the end of his tenure in Paris with a parting shot on how opera should, he's said to think, be staged: "traditional" production with a starry cast. The aim was perhaps also to offer a sort of ripost to the Paris Opera's previous production, by Christoph Marthaler, commissioned by Gerard Mortier. The result was only to emphasise the potential weakness of this approach (and to have, in the press, several critics almost wistfully admitting they preferred Marthaler's "regie" vision, East-German warts and all). Which seems, come to think of it, to have been his main achievement over the last four years, since the awful Mireille - "putain, Mireille," as a friend put it - that opened his reign. Benoît Jacquot's approach is one that was popular in the 80s: basically, one big, expensive object per scene, on an empty stage, and a handful of easily-grasped ideas.

In this case, the stage was both empty and black: no rear visible at all: "Vertiginous" black, said one critic. Our act one object was a gigantic royal bed centre-right with, under its high canopy, Manet's Olympia with her black maid. Our first simple idea was: Olympia is Violetta (or vice versa) and sure enough, Annina was blacked-up and wearing the same pale pink costume as in the painting. The revellers at Violetta's party were all men (i.e. including the lady members of the chorus) in undertaker black, with stove-pipe top hats (I wondered: did Frenchmen really all keep their hats on indoors in the 1850s?), lined up grimly en bloc to the left. They were motionless. "C'est l'enterrement dès le début," said my neighbour: a burial from the word go. That was easily grasped. Violetta's vast silk crinoline was sumptuously plain; she may once have been Olympia yet here looked positively virginal (we'll come back to that). The lighting was painterly: old masterish. It will look good on video.

As act two is in two parts, we had two big objects, both at the same time. On the left was a tree, as realistic as a stage tree could be, with a stone bench beneath its branches. Violetta was still in plain, crinolined silk and décolletée. Jacquot explained he couldn't see her dressed as a milkmaid, or something to that effect. Alfredo was now dressed as Werther, in tan suède, and sat on the tree roots in a conventional, Wertherish way to sing. On the right, as far as we could see in the dark, was a massive marble construction: a balustraded staircase along Palais Garnier lines, with globed candelabra, leading up to a similarly-balustraded terrace above a tribune with niches. There were a few cabaret tables in front, and some more funereal partygoers: extras in black with Zorro masks and Spanish sombreros, dotted around, immobile. There they stayed, in the dark, immobile as I just said, throughout the entire first tableau. "Sadism," said one critic.

So there was no curtain between tableaux: suddenly the lights went up - those Second Empire globes and our old friend the giant crystal chandelier - the marble was revealed to be lavishly polychrome, and there we were at Flora's for another joyless party.

A gypsy
Everyone, male or female, was in black except the dancers. The gypsy girls, who arrived in orangey pink, hiding their faces with fans, turned out to be men, some bearded. Conchita Wurst's contribution at the Eurovision Song Contest was surely too recent to have inspired this? The bullfighters were women, in red. All, horses and bull included, for some reason wriggled their bottoms at the audience. The chorus observed this puzzling performance motionless from the packed stairs; called away to dinner, they simply turned their backs and stayed put. And the most ridiculous thing, on the Bastille's even too-capacious stage, with fully half of it gloomily vacant to the left under the tree and leaving the house's state-of-the-art computer-controlled machinery, perfectly capable of shifting kit and caboodle into a more convenient position, unused, the dance and ensuing drama (with Violetta in another sumptuously plain silk crinoline, now jet black) took place squeezed into the pocket-handkerchief-sized space left between the grandiose, carpeted stairs, thrusting forward, and the orchestra pit(1).

For the final act, as we guessed at the interval, the giant bed was back, now on the left and stripped of its hangings, with the Manet down and facing the headboard, roped up, like the striped mattress, to be carted off, sold. This being so, Violetta was now curled on a small iron bedstead to the right, looking (and sounding: we'll come back to that) tiny and lost (especially as she was no longer in a crinoline) in the fathomless black space. When the mardi gras hubbub struck up, a portion of black curtain rose at the rear to reveal, not mardi gras revellers but another block of top-hatted, undertaker-like men in black. The ideas were, as I said, simple. "Symbolisme de quatre sous," remarked one person on a blog: tuppenny-ha'penney symbolism, you might say.

Short of bringing Kaufmann in to sing Alfredo - which Mortier, often criticised for putting the director first, did for Marthaler's once decried, now lamented production - Joël brought together as good a cast as any available. Ludovic Tézier is an ideal Germont senior, and got the most applause. There's nothing to add to that. Francesco Demuro is not Kaufmann but is a decent Alfredo, best at youthful enthusiasm, so his big moment was "De' miei bollenti spiriti". It's true that his top notes are somewhat covered - more harmonic than full sound - and he tends to sob, but at least the latter can be taken as a stab at emotion. Diana Damrau is excellent in almost every respect: interesting timbre, dynamic range at the service of subtlety of phrasing, agility, perfect tuning. She put a great deal of effort into projecting a Violetta frustrated with and fighting against her fate. And yet... Hers is an intrinsically beautiful voice, not an intrinsically dramatic one - nor is her Italian diction crisp - and my thought, as the evening went on, was that none of the singers had the help they needed from the production.

The Bastille stage
First, the Bastille is simply too big for a staging that leaves Violetta alone on a tiny bed against a gaping black hole. At the Bastille, that black hole is simply huge. Second, well, a gaping black hole is what it is: there were no sets to reflect sound back into the house. Damrau's top notes rang out splendidly enough, but I wondered if her lower register was audible at the back. Often during the evening, sitting in row 11 of the stalls, I found the singers (apart from Tézier) relatively remote; when Violetta was alone on her tiny bed, I felt inclined to lean forward to be sure of hearing. And third, this cold, stiff, funereal production failed to generate (or deliberately eschewed) dramatic tension, sensuality or emotion. Olympia or not, as one critic suggested, we had the odd suspicion this impeccable Violetta died a virgin. The chorus stood still in serried ranks. The transvestite ballet was more comical than sexy. The soloists, usually grouped in some small space on the stage, were left to themselves. Tézier, as is well known, is not a great mover, even if he proved once more he is a great singer. The others, try as they might (and as I said, Damrau put a great deal of effort into developing a character) were defeated by the leaden pall that settled over the evening. Result: an evening of singing that was admirable (indeed) but not exciting or moving.

As I remember, I once wrote that Currentzis loved Verdi to death. Daniel Oren conducted as if he thought he was Celibidache directing Bruckner, lovingly stretching out the bars, to such an extent that at one point I was almost certain Diana Damrau was trying to force him to get a move on.

At dinner afterwards we ordered champagne and toasted the end of Nicolas Joël's stint as director. Question now is, will Lissner be better? Opera being what it is, you never know.

(1) I later saw it suggested this production had been designed with filming in mind. It happens.

Maestro Wenarto and friend sing the Brindisi.