La Traviata at La Fenice with Sadovnikova, Secco and Meoni, under Myung-Whun Chung

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La Traviata at La Fenice, Act II. Photo Michele Crosera.

La Traviata at La Fenice, Act II. Photo Michele Crosera.

Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata
Melodramma in tre atti
Libretto di Francesco Maria Piave
dal dramma La dame aux camélias di Alexandre Dumas figlio
prima rappresentazione assoluta: Venezia, Teatro La Fenice, 6 marzo 1853
versione 1854
Teatro La Fenice
September 19, 2010

Violetta – Ekaterina Sadovnikova
Alfredo Germont – Stefano Secco
Giorgio Germont – Giovanni Meoni
Flora Bervoix – Rebeka Lokar
Annina – Sabrina Vianello
Gastone, visconte di Letori – Iorio Zennaro
Il barone Douphol – Elia Fabbian
Il dottor Grenvil – Luca Dall’Amico
Il marchese d’Obigny – Armando Gabba
Giuseppe – Cosimo D’Adamo
Un domestico di Flora – Nicola Nalesso
Un commissionario – Claudio Zancopè

Conductor – Myung-Whun Chung
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice
Chorus director – Claudio Marino Moretti

Director – Robert Carsen
Scene and costume design – Patrick Kinmonth
Choreography – Philippe Giraudeau
Assistant director – Christophe Gayral
Light designer Robert Carsen e Peter Van Praet

Piave’s and Verdi’s adaptation of Dumas fils’ La dame aux camélias is ubiquitous these days, both in regional companies and the major houses, but for some time it hasn’t caught up with me…until now. It is without a doubt regrettable that the audience draw of a handful of operas pushes outstanding less familiar works from the repertoire, and La Traviata is one of the most egregious culprits, but a cast, staging, and musical direction of the calibre I witnessed at La Fenice this Sunday afternoon make all these considerations irrelevant and make it impossible to resist La Traviata as an extraordinary masterpiece that touches basic issues in us all: the life of women in society, the faith of young men in passion, the blindness of good intentions. The results are genuinely tragic, and a performance like this goes far beyond the usual ritual and can genuinely move us.

Director Robert Carsen and designer Patrick Kinmonth’s 2004 production cuts right to the quick as an extremely effective, no-nonsense modern dress treatment, in which all the clichés have been efficiently pruned from the beginning. For me it suggested the 1980s, or perhaps any time since then. The exuberant party that floods Violetta’s bedroom in the opening scene could fit almost anywhere in the last generation, say in New York or London. But the scene and the entire production draw their immediacy from what we see during the overture. The curtain opens after the first few melancholy bars to reveal Violetta sitting impassively on her bed in an expensive but tacky interior. An enormous manipulated digital photograph of a forest in autumn hangs over it. As the quicker section begins, men appear, one after another, extending their arms with wads of bills. Violetta clutches them with deep satisfaction, but, as the action starts, it begins to rain money: this, the sleazy company and their uninhibited behavior evoke everything that is most distasteful in modern luxe. Money continues to fall, even in Alfredo and Violetta’s retreat, which of course they cannot afford, and flows through the entire production as a relentless leitmotiv. At the end Violetta thanks the good doctor Grenvil for his generosity, while Annina stuffs his hand covertly with bills. Workmen appear to get Violetta’s garret ready for the next occupant before she has even finished dying.

None of this hard-nosed setting detracts or undermines the traditional characterization of the principals. The warmth of Alfredo’s love for his fallen woman moves her to take a risk on the relationship, and she returns his love, even to the point of ruining herself financially. His father has all the best of intentions, and he is genuinely a kind man and an optimist. Carsen deserves full marks for bringing home what is written in the score and libretto, just as he did in his fine Onegin at the Met. Action, dances, movement of all kinds were impeccably realized. Especially powerful was Alfredo’s outburst before the crowd at the end of Act II, an appalling display, which has been softened all too often in traditional productions.

Myung Whun Chung’s virile and large-scale reading of the score and its powerful dynamics struck me as unconventional and invigorating. Overall, he kept the action moving at a rapid pace, but he gave the singers plenty of room to shape their phrases. He showed a clear understanding of each singer’s style and supported them with a brilliant sense of what such a collaboration can achieve — and on this afternoon the principals were profoundly different in their approach to Verdi. Apart from his own view of the score, which is always front and center, he can allow his singers an extraordinary flexibility in tempo and phrasing. The warm applause for Maestro Chung from the La Fenice audience made it clear that they know they have a truly great master of the pit in Venice. The encounter between Alfredo and Violetta in Act II mentioned above was not without its orchestral pyrotechnics — hair-raisingly precise string figures, which were every bit as overwhelming as the forty-year-old Verdi intended them to be.

The acoustics of the restored La Fenice are immediate…and loud! It took me a while to get used to the level of sound, but it was well-balanced and favored the singers to the point that Chung could let the orchestra play at full volume and belt out resounding chords and sharp percussion without compromising them, at least for the most part. He showed a fine sense of the level his singers are capable of and blended them in most skillfully with Verdi’s orchestral sonorities. If anything made this an exceptional realization of Verdi’s intentions — not to diminish the accomplishment of the cast —  it was Chung’s powerful reading of the score, which took it seriously as tragedy. And I would be the last to blame him for an occasional flirt with bombast.

La Fenice are offering two or even three different castings for the principals. We heard the young Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Violetta, Stefano Secco as Alfredo, and Giovanni Meoni as Germont Père. All sang and acted superbly. Meoni was one of the finest Germonts I’ve heard, balancing the lyricism of his melodic lines with rhetorical pointing and dramatic emphasis, powerfully supported by the weighty lower range of his voice. His artistry in coloring his delivery was awe-inspiring. Secco is a kind of tenor very much to my taste, with strong support, nicely balanced tone throughout his range, and, above all, exceptional intelligence and taste in his phrasing. He approached each phrase with space around the notes and controlled coloration and phrasing. The result was both expressive and beautiful in its own right. I hung on every bar.

His partner, Ekaterina Sadovnikova, is an entirely different sort of singer. Her aim is a long melodic line produced with as much beauty and, when called for, virtuosity, as possible. Her more expansive languid phrases had the potential to clash with her Alfredo’s more objective, musicianly control, but, thanks to their combined artistry and their maestro, the results were added interest and tension to the performance. She produced some thrilling grand moments, as well as engaging — and moving —  lyricism and pathos in the final act. At thirty, Sadovnikova can still develop in confidence and dramatic fluency, but she shows many fine musical and dramatic gifts and all the potential to develop into a great singer.

It was a joy and a privilege to see and hear this old war horse treated with such seriousness and musicianship…not to mention the dreamy wanderings through the Calli and Campi of Venice on a bright Sunday afternoon to the grand old house, so splendidly brought back to us after the tragic fire.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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