"Triumph" and "Failure" are strong words to describe the impact of an opera performance. Both are bold and unambiguous; they leave little doubt about what "really happened" that night. Imaginations might easily run wild. But there is a problem in using words like these, adjectives that--in the context of an opera review (or, in this case, two operas)--leave so much unsaid and attach a label so uncritical for the sake of succinctness. They force what is a concerted effort of vast complexity and preparation realized as ineffable performance into subjective criteria of judgment--no matter how outlandish, bare, or lame the production.
Indeed, the art of music criticism is never effortless: a critic must always make difficult, conscious choices when it comes to evaluating an opera production on its own terms, rather than gauging it against an ideal that exists purely in recordings or simply as collected fragments from many different productions in his or her mind. One must examine carefully the whole kit-and-caboodle: how did the sets facilitate the action? Were the characters motivated to move at the right times? Was that flash of light on purpose? And, importantly, did the music--as realized on the night--complement, question, or reject entirely the production it helped create?
In short (hopefully not too late), the key question a critic must ask is, in my opinion: what did this production say (to me) emotionally and intellectually--in other words, what did I feel during and after as a direct cause of what I saw and heard?
This position places emphasis on the production's efficacy as theatre instead of intellectual vision. Surprisingly, two recent productions (both in no uncertain terms over-determined intellectually) challenged audiences and critics in wildly different ways by using similar means: Kasper Holten's Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera and Peter Konwitschny's La traviata at English National Opera (ironically, both making their directorial debuts). Both used similar metaphors to highlight similar themes and, even more intriguing, were received similarly by audiences at both houses--if one can judge based upon the volume of applause and "boos."
Traviata and Onegin are in at least two ways woven from a common thread: both are musically concerned with intimacy (mental and sexual) and dramatically with social hypocrisy. La traviata was one of Verdi's first operas (save perhaps the earlier Stiffelio) to invite the listener into an intimate psychological space shared by his heroine--a prostitute who, although a social outsider, ironically is more human than any other character in the opera. Violetta's "Ah! fors’ č lui", with its mediations on love, desire, and life emphasized by its rhythmic and melodic shape might be the best example of this. Tchaikovsky creates a similar effect with Tatyana's Letter Scene: its sense of restrained sexual desire and brilliant mental hesitations experienced in the act of confession draw the listener into the plane of her private, inner world. Moreover, by interweaving his (anti-)hero's social motivations for forsaking her love in his youth, Tchaikovsky exposes the naivety with which Onegin so cavalierly rejects her. Interestingly, the same could be said of Alfredo's Act II rejection of Violetta, spurned on by his futile obsession with honor.
Konwitschny's Traviata does much using very little to highlight these psychological themes. It is certainly a production senza excess if there ever was one: there is no set. As the curtain opens, the audience is greeted with a lone chair in a spotlight, cabaret style, strategically placed in front of another red curtain. As the opera progresses, more red curtains are successively revealed until the final scene of Act II, when Alfredo (rather than throwing money at Violetta as "payment") tears them all down in a frenzy. This clever metaphor for the obfuscation of the harsh realities of life was used a final time at the end of Act III, as Violetta walks through a black curtain to meet death. To an extent, the curtains focused attention on Violetta's private world: each time the chorus appeared, there was an extreme sense of intrusion; with their stock movements and often mindless repetitions of action, the chorus seemed like a part of a false reality, a cause and effect of Violetta's limited and fatal existence.
Holten bluntly played with the audience's sense of reality much more viscerally: throughout the opera, he had "Young Tatyana" and "Young Onegin" re-enacting the memories or action narrated by the singers in real-time and in front of three doors: portals, no doubt, into the intimate, perhaps dark corners of our minds--similar in this respect to Konwitschny's curtains. It was reminiscent of the stifled and introspective feelings one experiences moving through the National Gallery. This choice gave Eugene Onegin a hyperrealist spin, one that was exacerbated by Holten's decision to, as the opera progressed, let key props (or, in Lensky's case, his body) accumulate/rest in front of the audience; a brutal reminder that (bad) memories, although easy to run from, are never truly forgotten. But Holten did keep the barrier between audience and action intact, while Konwitschny raised the house lights just before "Addio, del passato," destroying any sense of distance (and intimacy) between the audience and Violetta's painful death, almost as if to say "Are you capable of being this human?" Or, more cynically, "this is your fault."
Both were, as mentioned, over-determined intellectually, but Holten's made for brilliant theatre because of what overtly suggested about reality and memory: it was perfectly suited to the narrative and atmospheric functions of the music, enough to produce a considerable emotional reaction with arguably less effective "raw" material. Contrarily, Konwitschny's approach fell flat because of his over-reliance on the implicit social aspects of the drama. The juxtaposition of many intimate moments with the few uncomfortable scenes of Parisian milieu is a key part of what makes Traviata so dramatically effective, but often, Konwitschny's approach detracted and departed from the music's intimate, realized narrative: his is a Traviata that rightly (and ironically) exists in a close reading of the libretto, but not in the score and certainly not when it is realized as performance.
Still, credit must be given to Corinne Winters, who, in making her European debut, was a conflicted and truly three-dimensional Violetta. She went for the E-flat at the end of "Sempre libera" and sounded her shining tone out into the house, which redeemed somewhat the choice to have Ben Johnson's Seymour-esque (I'm thinking of Little Shop of Horrors) Alfredo standing in the audience ŕ la the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene whilst singing to her, eliding him with the audience and adding yet another layer of "Othering," and, of course, further implicating the audience in the death of the heroine. Johnson's Alfredo was better sung than most (his best moment was, suprisingly, the usually cut cabaletta "O mio rimorso") but the role undoubtedly is still slightly beyond him; perhaps he was ill. Better yet was the soundly sung Germont of Anthony Michaels-Moore, who did his best to navigate the completely absurd inclusion of a young girl stand-in for Alfredo's sister. The confrontation between Violetta and Germont is one of the--if not the--cruces of the opera: it certainly does not need some incongruous translation ("She is to be married") coupled with a bit-o-violence towards minors (Germont slaps the girl, who couldn't have been older than 8); after all, this isn't Wagner.
Luckily, Michael Hofstetter continually reminded us what part of Europe the music had come from with commendable stylistic flair: you can always tell a conductor who knows Traviata by listening for the anticipation of the downbeat by the lower strings in the Brindisi. Besides that, his tempi were chosen extremely well: he followed the singers in perfect time. The strings had a bit of difficultly during the prelude but otherwise play extremely well.
For as good as the singing was at ENO, down the road the Royal Opera certainly showed their best by putting together an all-star cast with three solid principles. Simon Keenlyside seemed slightly ill, his high notes lacking their usual force of clarion tone that has become his hallmark, but he nevertheless tackled the difficult role with verve: his Onegin is a fully three-dimensional cad who you just can't help but pity. Krassimira Stoyanova made huge waves as Tatyana, especially in her Letter Scene: her approach is precision blended passion that not only articulates but communicates brilliantly. Of course, it was lovely to hear Pavol Breslik sing a tenor role with more meat than Don Ottavio, and his Lensky was every bit the arrogant, searching youth he needed to be; his chemistry with Keenlyside was deeply felt, no where more strongly than the final moments of Scene Four.
Robin Ticciati made the orchestra an effective narrative tool, evoking a wide palate of color throughout the performance. The choruses of both houses did very well, inhabiting their respective "characters" well despite their mechanical movements throughout.
When taken together, the serendipity that links the two productions is a testament to both director's creative skill; both realized two perspectives on youth, memory, intimacy, and the role all three play in the individual's transgression or acceptance of social mores. Nevertheless, this is opera criticism: criticism of performance, a realm where feeling judges triumphs from failures.
Photos: Bill Cooper and Tristram Kenton