Verdi: La traviata

Welsh National Opera

Cardiff Milennium Centre, Wales, 15 February 2012 5 stars

La traviata at WNOWith Valentine's Day just around the corner, WNO's revival of director David McVicar's 2009 La traviata (revival directed by Marie Lambert) comes just in time. What better way to mark this most romantic point in the calendar than Verdi's devastating melodrama? Indeed, the candle-lit set, replete with flowers, love letters and lingerie, seems to make determined play with, among other things, the iconology of 14 February.

In La traviata, outdoor (meaning off-stage) bands, choruses and serenades intrude on the domestic world of Violetta, the opera's heroine. These musical incursions, coming in from the street, could have offered echoes of the recent Venice carnival for the city's opera goers in 1853, the familiar acoustic/domestic atmosphere thus providing Venice's aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie with a means of identifying with Violetta, a Parisian prostitute who nonetheless shared many of the trappings of the socially elevated.

That this identification was not entirely welcome is signalled by the Venice premiere's scandal. The audience jeered Violetta, who was seemingly too fat to be believable as a sex symbol. Meanwhile, critics objected to the immorality of Piave's libretto (based on Dumas' already notorious novel and play)—and, in certain extreme cases, even complained that Verdi's melodies failed properly to "clothe" the opera's naked depravity.

As the curtain rises during the Prelude, the heavy drapery of McVicar's and designer Tanya McCallin's set gives way to yet more plush fabrics. This regress of drapes helps to define various depths of field, while hanging above the stage ominously—much like Verdi's Prelude, which famously summarizes music from the opera's three acts in reverse order, beginning with the unhappy finale.

However, gloomy portents quickly dissolve into sparkling vocal performances in Act 1: the WNO chorus, led by Stephen Harris, spurs on Leonardo Capalbo (Alfredo) in a rousing "Libiamo nei lieti calici", and Joyce El-Khoury's (Violetta's) "Sempre libera" makes light work of Verdi's demanding vocal part, ranging assuredly over its varied registers. Over the next two acts, Violetta's tuberculosis gradually encroaches on her vocal range: her protracted spiral downwards into bodily and vocal oblivion can be tricky to pull off, but El-Khoury handles it with consummate dramatic skill.

Act 2 makes even more conspicuous use of curtains, mainly to isolate various parts of the stage. A small square gap in the velveteen to the proscenium's left reveals Alfredo and Violetta in bed, the latter sleeping face down and half naked while the former sings his aria. This gap then closes, but a similar one opens on the right, showing a writing desk. Alfredo moves from one space to the other—a movement that mirrors a new stage in the aria's conventional form, as cantabile style gives way to increased action. Throughout this sequence, Capalbo sings passionately (particularly in "De' miei bollenti spiriti"), even while he leisurely (and extrovertly) gets dressed.

Baritone Jason Howard, who sings Germont, adeptly manages his awkward imposition as father figure during his long duet with El-Khoury. Both singers deftly manipulate the constant psychological shifts, which are mirrored in the duet's melodic exchange. Shortly afterwards, Howard delivers a disarmingly direct rendition of "Di Provnenza il mar, il suol", which is all the more powerful for its straightforward delivery.

The Act 2 divertissements now follow, specified by Piave as dancing gypsies and matadors. The choreographer Andrew George retains the matadors but captures instead the late nineteenth-century café concert in his line of lascivious chorus girls. Meanwhile, gentlemen in evening dress lie down at the front of stage, all the happier for their more horizontal perspectives on the dancers' skirts. Covered as they are with abundant white petticoats, no part of a female leg could hope to be discerned by these men. But this does not seem to matter to them. Meanwhile, we are invited to watch the gentlemen watching: to observe, perhaps, their fetish for women's clothes.

For Freud, fetishes were "unsuitable substitutes" for sex: "What is substituted for the sexual object is some part of the body (such as the foot or hair) which is in general very inappropriate for sexual purposes, or some inanimate object which bears an assignable relation to the person whom it replaces and preferably to that person's sexuality (e.g. a piece of clothing or underlinen)". Our chorus members, then, are textbook fetishists (according to Freud's 1901 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality).

The same can be said of McVicar's production over all, which takes obvious pleasure in fabrics and their varied associations with Violetta's body. An exception is Violetta's nakedness in Act 2's first scene—though, as mentioned, it is precisely at this point that the curtain comes to be refashioned as a quasi-cinematographic device (think Edison's peep-show machine), framing hers and Alfredo's bedroom sequence.

However, the diagnosis of fetishism is perhaps not one best directed at this production. It is a more general condition afflicting La traviata. Even before its first performance, clothing was at issue: the Venetian censors forced Dumas' play back in time from the 1840s to 1700, above all from fear of the scandal that might be caused by putting modern dress on stage. Or one could read the censors' anxiety in reverse: they were defending the tradition of dressing up in historical costume.

In Act 3, WNO's orchestra comes into its own, with beautifully intimate, chamber-like playing. The mournful Prelude is well paced and expressive; later, in the finale, the funereal dotted figure played by the enitre orchestra is both insistent and bleak. As the violins and violas break away from this mournful procession, in order to accompany Violetta's "Se una pudica vergine", the orchestra produces a wonderful spatial effect—evidence of a clinical attention to textural differentiation from conductor Julia Jones, who thus triumphantly concluded her WNO debut.

The excellent performances by the orchestra and singers provide the best reason to go and see WNO's La traviata around this Valentine's Day (though this revival continues into the Spring). The greatest strength of this production, meanwhile, lies in its concrete grounding in the late-nineteenth-century's demi-monde—not, of course, the historical world chosen by Piave and Verdi, nor the Venetian censors of 1853, but one nevertheless in touch with La traviata's fetishistic tendencies.

By Gavin Williams

Photo: Roger Donovan