A moment that lasts forever – that seems to be the what Peter Mussbach’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata (available in the video from Aix-en-Provence with Mireille Delunsch) wants to show. Many people portray one’s final moment as a “flashback” and that seems to be the point here, reinforced by the fact that both act I and act III preludes start basically the same way (although the latter is one half-tone higher). The fact that the events depicted in libretto are shown as drops of remembrance against the setting of the dying scene is a clever idea, but why that scene has to be on a highway? The blond wig and costumes given to Violetta makes one think of Marilyn Monroe – but one could also consider Jayne Mansfield. She died in a car accident (and, for your information, she played the piano and the violin) – but the point of all that is still a mystery. The truth is that I tend to be soft on productions that, in spite of all silliness, look beautiful – and this one does create a sense of melancholy in its nightly atmosphere. One could almost imagine a soundtrack with Billie Holiday songs, but Verdi’s La Traviata will have to do.
Back to La Traviata. Although this is supposedly one of the pillars of the standard repertoire, I have increasingly met people who cannot stand a performance of it, especially among those who are not used to go the opera. I have to confess myself that I always brace myself and expect a long night at the opera when I am about to see La Traviata. And I’ll tell you why – 1) the title role is too difficult and generally there is a soprano fighting with it; 2) the whole aesthetics – both musical and theatrical – are on the edge of over-sentimentalized and this sort of thing only works when all performers show absolute conviction; 3) the score tends to monotony with its excess of triple tempo; 4) I cannot – I really cannot stand Germont’s Di provenza il mare; 5) it is not one of the pieces of music I dislike most, because there is always Non udrai rimproveri as number one. Anyway, this evening I had decided to try my luck because of Ailyn Perez. I had never seen her before, but a friend of mine had said so many good things about her that I felt I should check.
I am not entirely convinced that Violetta is a role for a lyric soprano (in the sense of someone who should be singing Mimì, the Countess Almaviva and Arabella) and, although Ms. Perez was far from immaculate in it, I did cherish the opportunity of getting to listen to her. If you put Renata Scotto and Kiri Te Kanawa in a blender, you’d probably get something like Ailyn Perez. The basic sound is creamy, but she can find a touch of chest resonance for the low-lying moments and a touch of metal for the more dramatic moments. Even if she knows to coarsen her voice, she never lets go tonal beauty and not only her diction is crystal-clear but she has mastered the art of colouring the text and infusing every little word with meaning. As many lyric sopranos, she found trouble in Sempre libera. Probably because the pace was really fast, she got breathless at some point and anyone who sings knows that, once you loose control of your breathing in the middle of an aria, trying to regain control of it is a lost battle. Many phrases were left unsung while she tried to get back to the saddle and she only got to the end of the aria because she must be a very stubborn woman. After that, nothing that problematic happened. She is a bit adventurous with breath control and would often leave some convenient Luftpausen go only to find herself a bit short of air later. Once past the act 1 catastrophe, she offered an impressively vivid and touching account of the duet with Germont and a fresh account of Addio del passato that balanced vocal (such as heavenly pianissimi) and theatrical aspects, with illuminating word-pointing. Also, her ideas of how to portray Violetta’s consumption were all musical and pertinent. To make things better, she is a committed actress, who embraced the difficult directorial choices (one must not forget, in this production Violetta stays on stage during the whole opera and the only intermission is in the end of act II). Finally, the reading of the letter was beautifully handled and her death scene showed expert blending of declamation and singing. I feel I should make a conclusion about Ms. Perez – although hers was one of the most impressively stylish and intelligent performance of an Italian role I have seen in some years, I would still like to see her in a role closer to her vocal nature. She certainly deserves more attention, for, when it comes to what an opera singer should do, she is the real thing – there is nothing routine about her, she does sheds her blood on stage while keeping musical values in high standard and that is a rarity today.
Every tenor who sings all the “little” notes written by Verdi for Alfredo has my respect – and Daniil Shtoda showed commendable flexibility and dynamic variety. His voice is a bit on the light side for the role and some exposed high notes brought about some tension. I wish he did not tried the interpolated high c in the end of his act 2 cabaletta. When a tenor has to let all those laveròs before he tries it, that means he should not sing it full stop. I don’t know which is the general opinion, but for me the written laveròs are far more relevant than the unwritten note. I guess Verdi would agree with me. Finally, he is not much of an actor and trying to cope with Mussbach’s difficult requirements made he look a bit silly (and his hair-do already makes that for him). As for Alexander Marco-Buhrmester, considering his Wagnerian background, he has feeling for Verdian lines. His voice is certainly dark and imposing and he handles Italian legato quite adeptly, but he has too many fluttering and woolly moments for comfort.
Conductor Alexander Vitlin deserves praises for his willingness to read the score instead of reproducing cliché under the pretense of “tradition”. His orchestra was rich and clear, he tried to give variety and nobility to this music (sometimes, it is true, that meant that some numbers could be a bit more forward-moving) and one must mention that the backstage orchestra in act I did sound like background music to an animated party and not a vulgar brassy mess.