La Traviata (encore)
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs…
From Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats
La Traviata, Royal Opera, 16th January 2017, conductor Daniele Rustioni, music by Giuseppe Verdi, based on Alexander Dumas Fils’s play La Dame aux Camélias
Reviewing an earlier revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata (QR, March 21, 2016), we commented on the striking set in Act One. It is semi-circular with concentric seating, as in an ancient amphitheatre. But perhaps temple is a better comparison, albeit a temple in which the only god that is worshipped is pleasure. When life is perceived to have no meaning, hedonism and escapism become attractive options, given that death awaits us all. And love is just a higher or sublimated form of pleasure, albeit one often admixed with pain.
Like Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Violetta Valéry has to somehow survive in a patriarchal society in which hypocrisy about sexuality prevails. As she poignantly observes, “I have no friends in the world”. Indicatively, in this context, a daguerreotype of a Victorian waif is projected onto the screen before the curtain rises for Act One. A courtesan, a euphemism that in itself reflects what Roberta Montemorra calls “Victorian sensibilities and ideology” (see “The Domestication of La traviata”, in the official programme), Violetta is fated to die prematurely. Her demise bespeaks the bourgeois notion “that the illness [TB] is well-earned” (quotation from “A Tragedy of Affliction?”, Christopher Wintle, official programme). As a supposedly fallen woman, she is required to sacrifice her only hope for happiness on the altar of respectability. For as Giorgio Germont sanctimoniously informs her, “God gave me a daughter, who is pure as an angel”.
The struggle between idealism and materialism that we noted in regard to Manon Lescaut (vide QR, “Abducted by Love”, November 28, 2016) also informs La Traviata. For the Chevalier des Grieux, read Alfredo Germont. For Geront de Revoir, read Baron Douphol. Fallen woman notwithstanding, Violetta is surely the noblest character in La Traviata. As Wilfred Owen memorably maintained, those “who love the greater love, Lay down their life; they do not hate”.
The performances of all the leading players and the ensemble work on this occasion were technically very accomplished. But Maria Callas, soprano assoluta, set the bar exceedingly high. We were not moved, not even when Giorgio Germont, played by the Polish baritone Artur Ruciński, evoked Alfredo’s homeland and family, in the aria Di Provenza. At the opera, audiences invariably recognise what is affecting.
LESLIE JONES is the editor of QR