Unlike Pinky and The Brain, Sonya Yoncheva does not have a plan to conquer the world; she focus on one country at a time. Her journey has really got momentum in France, where she sang everything from Rameau to the three leading roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Her next station was the USA, where her Gilda, Desdemona and Violetta have received rave reviews. Although she had already sung in Germany, a new production of La Traviata made specially for her at the Berlin Staatsoper with Daniel Barenboim seems to be the real beginning of her German “campaign”. I had seen her only once in four very exciting minutes of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes in the anniversary gala of the Concert d’Astrée – and was eager for more (her lovely CD of French arias plus Violetta’s Sempre Libera made me even more curious), even if it meant having to sit through a whole Traviata. Especially one staged by Dieter Dorn, whose Nozze di Figaro for the Bayerische Staatsoper and Elektra for the Lindenoper are hardly my favorite productions, to put it mildly.
This evening’s Traviata did not made me change my mind. Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors, a photograph showing a skull built from seven naked bodies, is recreated live as an image in Violetta’s mirror, in the top of which there is a very drab looking brown bag supposed to be an hour glass, the sand falling on a writing table. Around it, there is a semicircular black wall with doors. It is a single set for a performance without intermission. This fact alone makes for very problematic situations: Alfredo says he does not have any fun when Violetta is not there – but she is there; Violetta says she is leaving for good, but she is still there. Since the set has almost no piece of furniture, everybody has to sit on the floor and lie down and crawl. This makes me believe that Germont, Snr., is visually challenged – Violetta is shoeless, disheveled, crouching near a wall, there is a lot of her thighs to be seen, and his opinion is “She is so ladylike”. Then he looks around at that rathole and adds “But how about a luxurious place such as this?”. In any case, one could have said: “ok, this is a very ugly Traviata; now let’s focus on everything else!”. But this would not be an easy task. There are some vey basic problems – the blocking is often nonsensical, singers are often uncomfortable with what they have to do and Yoncheva has always her arms stretched out as if she were swimming rather than walking and more than once twirls as a 6-year-old girl… in her anticipation of vortices of pleasure… I don’t want to publish a spoiler, but the death scene is truly embarrassing. Peter Mussbach’s old production was not faultless, but it is worlds apart from this one in atmosphere, Personenregie and insight.
Although I have never been keen on Daniel Barenboim’s Verdi, this evening he has set a new low in his records: to start with, the orchestral sound was so recessed, brassy and unsubtle that one could legitimately believe that the banda off stage was in charge the whole evening through. La Traviata is not one of Verdi’s most inspired examples of writing for the orchestra, and this demands an extraordinary effort from the conductor in order to produce musically and dramatically coherent and refined phrasing. The performance this evening could rather be described as mechanical in terms of rhythm, inexistent in terms of strings and non-functional in terms of expression. If one remembers that the orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is even mind-boggling. A moment that exemplifies all the faults in this evening’s performance: the emotional peak in the whole opera is the act II Amami, Alfredo: it features the musical theme of the preludes to act I and act III, it comes as a culmination of a very difficult scene with a truly wide-ranging emotional aspect and it builds up to a vocal and orchestral climax. At this point, Ms. Yoncheva was trying to balance her strengths in a passage that tests her lyric voice. But then the orchestra was still comfortably in ppp. It erupted only abruptly for one second: Amami, AlfrE (outburst from the orchestra)-edo, Amami, quanto io T’A(another outburst)-amo. The effect seemed like cannon shots rather than a crescendo. Why?!
The success of La Traviata depends on the soprano in the leading role – and these performances have a clear advantage there. Sonya Yoncheva is simply the most interesting Violetta Valéry I’ve seen on stage. She knows exactly what every note and word means and does not take any second for granted. She kept me on the edge of my seat during the whole evening by virtue of her imagination and good judgment. To make things better, her voice is interesting in itself. It is not pretty in a classical way and at moments suggests the tonal “flashness” of an Callas (albeit in a lighter and smaller version) with the technical discipline of a singer who sang Mozart and Handel: until act III her passaggio was handled with unfailing precision, not to mention that her coloratura and mezza voce are very adept. And she masters the art of tone coloring – it is a voice that can caress and kill depending on the moment. So why am I not more excited about the performance as a whole? Intelligent, stylish and well-crafted as it was, it never sounded truly sincere. This was Sonya Yoncheva singing La Traviata, and it turned around her many talents, but Violetta’s emotional journey, from the intoxicated despair of act I, via the joys of the newly discovered sense of belonging even at the expense of happiness in act II, towards depression, mourning of her own dreams and hope of spiritual bliss in act III – all this was largely absent. Since act III is also the most challenging to her voice, the lack of a “vision” made this fact very clear. All that said, it is still the most interesting Violetta I’ve seen live (and I’ve seen some very good ones) and I reckon that apter production and conducting plus more experience in the role will make it closer to what it is meant to be.
Her Alfredo was Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri. It is a very particular voice, something like: Joseph Calleja minus the vibratello, the idiomatic Italian, the imagination and the technical finish. Now being fair: he was evidently very nervous, and I am sure that the wrong notes, the frogs and the extra breath pauses probably won’t be there by the end of the run. But there already is plenty to cherish: the good taste, the mezza voce, the flexibility, the naturalness and the good size for a lyric voice. The all-round more complete performance this evening was, however, Simone Piazzola’s as Germont, père. His Renato-Bruson-like baritone may lack some volume in its higher reaches, but the style comes to him without effort and he alone seemed to have some real emotional connection with what was going on on stage, even if one might call the approach rather generalized compared to the prima donna’s meticulous understanding of her lines.