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Sunday, January 23, 2011

A "new-old" Traviata - 2004 Venice (Ciofi, Sacca, Hvorostovsky)

My video marathon of La Traviata continues with the 2004 production from Venice. The director was Robert Carsen and this is maybe the first real "regie" Traviata. Carsen updates this Traviata to the sleazy 1970s nightclub scene, and the overwhelming theme of this Traviata is money. Money is tossed at Violetta from the opening chords, and the green dollar bills become an integral part of the scenery. Alfredo in this update is a paparazzi, whose loving photos of Violetta win her heart.
If this sounds unappealing, I say: give this video a chance. It's also one of the most sensitive realizations of Verdi's story that I've ever seen, and it is unique in that it uses the autograph 1853 score. There are a few differences from the final, familiar version -- the Act 2 duet with Germont has higher, more ornate writing for both characters, and the Act 2, scene 2 concertato have more ornate writing for Violetta. To hear the differences in the "Alfredo, Alfredo":

Even though Carsen updates the opera, he doesn't fundamentally change the story or even the stage directions. What his update does is it takes away the veneer of class and glamour that a traditional Traviata would give Violetta. Here, she's definitely a hooker. At the party she's dressed in a slinky red gown and sings on top of a piano. Lecherous men throw money at her. Later on she changes into a slinky robe, lingerie and hooker heels. The production is fairly detailed in its scenery, and not stylized, unlike a lot of regie productions. Violetta sings her double aria "Ah forse lui/Sempre libera" in her bedroom, which is decorated with those cheesy satin sheets that are a well-known fixture of hotels that cater mostly to prostitutes. In the first scene of Act 2, the French countryside is depicted not just with trees, but with money literally everywhere on the ground. I guess it's supposed to double as grass? In Flora's party, there are strippers.

I think the best part of Carsen's production is the final act. Too often Violettas die a death that I think is way too pretty. Not here. Carsen has Violetta dying in a cold, dark, warehouse-like structure. She's curled up in a fetal position, and a TV in the background. TV's had been used in the production as a symbol of Violetta's celebrity, but as Violetta is dying, the TV is playing static. Her celebrity is over.

The Violetta of this production, Patrizia Ciofi, has a voice that at first sounds like "not much." Ciofi has a thin, somewhat acidulous lyric coloratura soprano sound, and a penchant for making some weird facial expressions while singing that are not flattered by closeups. Her voice turns harsh and wobbly in the top register. I wish she didn't try for the E-flat at the end of "Sempre libera" -- don't go for the note if it's an ugly scream! But what she doesn't have in terms of pure voice, she makes up for in musicality. And at other times, I wish for a larger, lusher voice. But I like the way Ciofi is able to shape phrases, and also her characterization is wonderful. She's both brittle and vulnerable, and her frail physique makes her a very convincing sick person. I love how she clutches her pictures during "Ah forsei lui." Celebrity is the only thing Violetta has in her life.

Roberto Sacca has a beefier voice than most Alfredo's, but he can sound a bit blustery, and doesn't have the vocal elegance one often associates with Alfredo. He also is rather lumpy and uninvolved onstage -- Alfredo in this production is a cipher. What are his intentions? Making business for his paparazzi business? Dmitri Hvorostovsky's silky bass-baritone lies somewhat low for most Verdi parts, but his vocal elegance is very welcome in a part that's often become barked. In this production Germont is rather priggish, but Hvorostovsky finds a way to give the character a dignity and rare sympathy.

Although I find some aspects of Carsen's production are heavyhanded, as many regie productions tend to be (did we have to see the money symbol so many times?), I think overall it's a sensitive, conscientious updating of the opera. This video isn't my first choice for Traviata videos but it's definitely worth adding to your collection.

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