Continuing the series on our writers’ operatic passions, Sam Smith explains what makes a production of Verdi’s 1853 classic work
Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata of 1853 is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world today. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ play La Dame aux camellias written a year earlier, it tells of Violetta Valéry who is a famed Parisian courtesan. Beneath her apparently carefree exterior, however, she is suffering from tuberculosis and her world is shaken when she meets Alfredo, with whom she falls in love. They run away together and live off the sale of her goods, but one day Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont appears and begs her to leave him. This is because Alfredo’s behaviour has brought disgrace on his family, which is impacting on the ability of Germont’s daughter to marry and be happy. Despite loving Alfredo deeply, Violetta shows compassion towards the family and agrees.
Alfredo, however, does not discover the real reason why Violetta has suddenly walked away, and everything comes to a head when he angrily confronts her at Violetta’s friend Flora’s soirée. He eventually discovers the truth as his father also regrets pushing them apart, but by this time Violetta is terribly ill and, although the pair are finally reconciled, she dies in his arms.
The opera was considered scandalous even before it premiered, with the censors ensuring it was set in the seventeenth century, and not the present day as Verdi intended, so that its allusions to ‘living in sin’ could not be seen as reflecting modern society. The championing of a prostitute (she is only ever referred to as a courtesan but the implication is surely there) was always going to be controversial at the time, but the beauty of the piece is that Violetta deserves to be advocated. She behaves selflessly and compassionately, and today when we are less inclined to judge people based on their status or profession, we can see her as a noble and moral character.
There is much debate over how autobiographical Verdi’s creation is, because he was himself judged by society for living with the soprano, Giuseppina Strepponi, out of wedlock from the late 1840s (they were married in 1859). However, when Germont and the chorus suddenly condemn Alfredo for his treatment of Violetta at Flora’s party it is certainly tempting to see this as the composer’s way of getting the people to take his own side. This, however, provides an insight into how mid-nineteenth century society did not hold one single attitude. Verdi’s attempt to ‘convert’ his audience may have represented wishful thinking to an extent, but surely he knew it would only work if it reflected an attitude to which at least some of its members would already have been sympathetic.
The best productions are those that give Violetta the dignity she deserves. It can therefore help if the overall setting reveals as much refinement as it does hedonism because she is still a product of the world in which she operates. Richard Eyre’s 1994 production for the Royal Opera, which has been revived practically every year since and is available online until 8 June, scores highly in this respect. Designer Bob Crowley works virtually every scene around a semi-circular set, with each one employing its own tools and techniques to shed light, and provide commentary, on the action.
Act I takes place in a sumptuous Art Deco interior, revealing Violetta’s role as the archetypal fashionable Parisian, with the room possessing a huge set of doors. When these are open and people are free to enter, Violetta assumes her sociable persona, and when they are closed she becomes a far more introverted character. Nevertheless, when she begins her one-to-one encounter with Alfredo the doors remain open, revealing how the divide between her public and private personae is not always clear-cut.
Because it is revived so regularly it is possible to see many casts over just a few years, and it is always interesting to see how different performers portray Germont. He can be made extremely stern and expectant, or immensely sensitive and embarrassed, and every interpretation seems to adopt just a slightly different position between these two extremes.
“That is what every production should aspire to do, but it is the way to achieve it that is key”
The 1920s is a period that many directors opt for as the Art Deco style seems conducive to presenting the right sense of decadence. Tom Cairns’ enjoyable Glyndebourne Festival Opera production (2014) also chooses this era, or at least appears to do so. This is because Hildegard Bechtler’s sets have a certain Art Deco feel, but it seems that we are actually looking at a present day that happens to embrace some earlier fashions. Alternatively, but just as successfully, Rodula Gaitanou’s production for Opera Holland Park (2018) embraces the decadent fin-de-siècle Paris of Proust.
Possibly my favourite ‘offbeat’ production comes from Daisy Evans for Longborough Festival Opera (2018). This sets the action in 1950s Hollywood with Violetta being the star of a film, and Alfredo an aspiring actor who has got a job on the set. This requires many changes of setting so that, for example, Act I is moved from a party to a studio set where they are shooting a film about Marie Antoinette. It works, however, because it makes Violetta, like Marilyn Monroe, ‘a young star, surrounded by sharks and tigers keeping her sweet for the camera and them’. It thus still marks her out as the most upstanding character in the entire affair.
At the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Kramer’s offering for English National Opera (2018) is rather cataclysmic. Promoted as contrasting ‘spectacular party scenes with tender intimate moments’, Kramer in the process pushes almost every idea that he explores to breaking point. His philosophy seems to be that if the Act I party is ultimately about hedonism, and if Violetta’s lifestyle epitomises this, then the associated points can have more impact by being pushed to extremes. The problem arises in the way in which Violetta’s character is pushed to the same extent, because it destroys the sense of her as a sensitive and complex individual. To portray her as a total inebriate in Act I (she responds to hearing Alfredo utter her own words back to her by swigging from a bottle) ruins the essence of the character, and makes us feel nothing for her because our emotional response needs to flow from feeling her essence.
English National Opera’s previous 2013 production from Peter Konwitschny enjoyed one revival, but is not to my taste either. It attempts to pare the opera down to a minimum, removing anything that is not absolutely vital, and runs at less than two hours. The entire set consists of several rows of silky red curtains, and, with the evening running without an interval, everything is set up to present a highly charged, hedonistic and claustrophobic atmosphere. In this instance, there is little problem in the portrayal of Violetta because it only involves exaggerating her natural traits a little. If, however, her character is pushed one way but with the grain of the piece, Alfredo’s is pushed the other and goes against it. He is made out to be a snivelling nerd, equipped with a host of awkward gestures. Not only does the lack of any sense of dignity to his character make it difficult to appreciate what Violetta would ever see in him, but it makes his accusatory rage during Flora’s soirée entirely unconvincing. Ultimately, the production falls foul of indulging in hyperbole as much as many others.
Willy Decker’s 2010 production for the Metropolitan Opera has just appeared as the site’s daily offering during the current lockdown. Though the singing is glorious, it reveals some of the problems with both the Kramer and Konwitschny productions, and the problem may run deeper than that. Decker aims to make the opera’s message timeless, by setting it in a non-specific time and place. However, while it is possible for us to relate to a work set specifically in the seventeenth century, 1853 or the 1920s, if something still resonates with our own time, it is harder to do so when the production is presented in an abstract manner to begin with, because its values also take on that quality.
However, I watched the 2012 revival and it certainly seems that this production was disliked by many when it first appeared, but has, with more recent revivals, grown to be universally loved. This is because most people have now seen how it really plumbs the depths of emotion to be found in the piece. That is what every production should aspire to do, but it is the way to achieve it that is key. In my experience it is done most successfully when the decadent atmosphere is tempered by a certain degree of restraint, so that we can truly appreciate Violetta for the noble person she really is.