A Moment’s Halt – a momentary taste
Of BEING from the Well amid the Waste –
And Lo! – the phantom Caravan has reach’d
The NOTHING it set out from – Oh, make haste!
From the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi, Royal Opera House, March 16th 2016, Director Richard Eyre, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, reviewed by Leslie Jones
During the orchestral overture, we see Violetta Valéry (Nicole Cabell) through a translucent curtain, wearing an exquisite white dress. The stage is still ill lit at this juncture and Violetta appears to be unwell. A daguerreotype image of a waif like child is projected onto a screen, perhaps to suggest that the heroine, a notorious courtesan, has only escaped from an obscure and poverty-stricken childhood by exploiting her female charms. On grounds of propriety we will pass over the origin of Dumas fils’ title La Dame aux camellias, the novel and play upon which La Traviata is based. Suffice it to say that red often represents blood and white, purity. (In an imaginative production of La Traviata at the Salzburg Music Festival in 2005, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, red and white sofas stood in for red and white camellias).
The staging of the famous party in Act 1 is striking with a concentric, semi-circular seating arrangement reminiscent of an amphitheatre and with a door in the background through which dazzling light streams in as the guests arrive. A table is set with sumptuous food and drink. As Théophile Gautier once observed, at the opera,“…prodigality is the better economy”. All of this opulence is in marked contrast to the Spartan set in Act 2 depicting the country house where Violetta now modestly lives with her lover Alfredo Germont (Piero Pretti).
In his review posted on the Royal Opera House website, music critic Mark Pullinger comments that Giorgio Germont’s aria in Act 2, scene 1, Di Provenza il mar, il suol, is by general agreement one of Verdi’s weakest as regards his mature operas. Presumably the many great baritones both past and present who have performed this role, including such luminaries as Ettore Bastianini (a personal favourite), Placido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Nicolae Herlea, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Leo Nucci, Lawrence Tibbett et al. were not cognisant of this fact. The theme of love versus family duty, the appeal to religion, the nostalgic evocation of landscape and the underlying Oedipal elements* – the combination is irresistible and is invariably a highlight of La Traviata. This performance was no exception and baritone Tassis Christoyannis received the warmest spontaneous applause of the evening for his rendition of Di Provenza, although Nicole Cabell who grew in confidence during the evening and tenor Piero Pretti also received generous applause throughout.
In a recent interview, Nicola Luisotti, the music director of San Francisco Opera and the former music director of Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, recalls a revealing episode in his early career. He had attended a master class in Pisa given by his mentor qua conductor, the late Piero Bellugi, at which, being a mere student, he bravely volunteered to conduct Le Nozze di Figaro. Apparently Bellugi asked him afterwards why he was there. But he refused to accept Luisotti’s explanation that it was “To learn to be a conductor”, complaining that he already was a conductor and that he was there, rather, “…to show us that you are better than us”. This, possibly, is the definitive, back-handed compliment. On the strength of this performance of La Traviata, however, Maestro Luisotti is definitely entitled to be conceited.
*In Dite alla giovine, likewise, there are suggestions of the Elektra Complex, as when Violetta asks Giorgio Germont to embrace her like his daughter
Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review