Monday, 24 April 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: La traviata

21 April 2017

I missed out—entirely through my own fault—on catching the final appearance of Götz Friederich’s Ring at the Deutsche Oper. Catching instead the latest revival of his La Traviata (by comparison a mere stripling at 18 years old) might seem a little like second best.

La traviata at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bernd Uhlig)
The two events can hardly be compared, though, and Friedrich’s take on Verdi’s evergreen tearjerker is a characteristically smart piece of work. And, as with so many Friedrich productions, it seems to contain many ideas since adopted to various degrees in subsequent stagings. 

Friedrich’s was here being performed for the 135th time, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Richard Eyre’s Royal Opera production, five years older and which has notched up around 170,* a good dozen of which I must have seen.

Eyre’s is classic, with period frocks and plenty of glamour, both in the grand, oversize set and the feel of luxury: it’s as if the Royal Opera’s gilt and velvet has encroached onto the stage. Friedrich’s doesn’t quite meld into the utilitarian grandeur of the interior of the Deutsche Oper’s in the same way, but it certainly reflects the house’s ethos more generally.

And it does have its own imposing grandeur, with Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s single set consisting of a huge room, with multiple huge doors set in each of its walls. Those walls, like the shiny floor, are black. A spartan metal bed is on stage throughout, a long white sheet spilling off it like a bridal train. Violetta starts off there in the Prelude, dragging herself from it with apparent reluctance as the party guests spill in. And of course she ends up back there for the final act; at the end of Act 2 scene 1 (the interval came between scenes in the second act), though, Alfredo curls up with his misery onto it.
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Costumes are interwar chic, or thereabouts, less as part of any updating than simply as part of the production’s aesthetic, their colour (enhanced by Ulrich Niepel’s lighting) playing off well against the dourness of the dark set. There are a few additional touches that seem typical Friedrich, including jaunty exaggerated dancing from the party guests and the appearance through the back doors at the back of giant nightmarish, puppet-like figures (like commedia dell’arte cousins of Fafner and Fasolt) during Act 3’s carnival music.

During the rest of Act 3 we see what looks like an old graveyard through those doors—perhaps a little too obvious a signifier of Violetta’s impending demise. In the first scene of Act 2, it’s bare tree trunks and a hint of the countryside beyond; Germont’s daughter appears here too, but watches from behind the tree trunks. It’s a canny, clever show, then, and one that gently tugs at the opera’s fabric without distorting its drama and without, either, presenting the sort of updated specifics that can too often entirely undermine the characters' motivation—we still believe here in the society that destroys Violetta.
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And why the comparison with Eyre, a stalwart show that does the job stylishly and effectively? I suppose it’s because Friedrich’s production, though it paradoxically looks both older and newer, shows that you can have a Traviata that negotiates a middle ground between questioning and refreshing an old warhorse while still functioning as a clearly revivable staple. It’s no doubt the sort of balance, if you'll excuses a moment of anglocentricism, that the Royal Opera in London are hoping Richard Jones’s new Bohème will strike.

Not all revivals themselves feel that fresh, though, and this one took some time to settle down. Giampaolo Bisanti, stepping in to conduct as a late replacement, was occasionally a little brusque, and the playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra, particular in the first act, was at times alarmingly scrappy. Happily things improved markedly as the evening progressed.

La traviata at the Deutsche Opera (Photo © Bernd Uhlig)

My pick of the principals was Antonio Poli, singing with sunny, forward tone as Alfredo. There’s still a slight lack of robustness in the technique, it seems, that makes him tire a little quickly, but this was lovely, big-hearted and tender singing (his ‘Parigi, o cara’ was a highlight), with every word audible. Dong-Hwan Lee was an impressive Germont, too, even if his baritone, clean and clear in timbre, strikes me as on the light side for this repertoire.

It took me a while to warm to Patrizia Ciofi’s Violetta, not least because the voice itself just can’t fill out the character’s phrases with the youthful warmth and lyrical generosity one wants: the middle-to-lower register is muddy and doesn’t project well, the upper reaches of the voice are often somewhat thin and wiry. She’s a good actor, though, and was properly moving both in the magnificent Act 2 duet with Germont and the final scene, where her quiet, unshowy sincerity won through. 

*My Royal Opera programmes are all in a cupboard in SW9, so I have the operatic Twitter community, and especially Ruth Elleson (@RuthElleson), to thank for furnishing me with this figure. 

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