Welcome to Konwitschny

9 Feb

My first La traviata was at the Edinburgh Festival in 1979 – a production by Kent Opera directed by Jonathan Miller at the time when you felt that Miller was actually interested in opera and in what he was doing.  I still remember it fondly, partly because I hardly knew the opera and still remember the frisson of Alfredo’s intervention in Sempre libera and of following the Germont/Violetta scene as if it were a play.  It was sung in English, the sets were simple – delicate sepia tints and it was done with a concentration, simplicity and intelligence that got to the heart of the piece.  I’ve heard many musically finer performances but few which seemed about the whole opera.

This performance (I saw it on February 7th) came very close to matching and, in some places, surpassed it.  In my comments about ENO’s recent Carmen,  I worried about buying in distinguished directors’ productions and regretted that ENO can’t, these days, cast the leading role from within its regular singers.  The same thoughts apply but this evening seemed to justify the means in the way that Carmen didn’t quite.

Peter Konwitschny’s production is newer than Bieito’s  and is billed as a co-production, rather than one that has been bought it.  It’s already available on DVD, though, from the original Graz performances.  I might get it.

Konwitschny’s production is spare and contemporary.  The set is a series of curtains that can be opened to deepen the stage or bring the action closer to the audience.  The only piece of furniture is a chair for Violetta.  There is a pile of books for Alfredo and that’s about it.  He has re-invented the plot, which is set out in the programme and sees the opera, quite rightly, as a piece about convention versus individuality.  He creates a world in which men treat women as play things, using violence to keep them in order. In the Act III party, the guests wander round throwing cards around getting an air of decadence, of alienation.  Alfredo is the outsider, turning up at a black tie party in his slacks and cardigan and staying in those for the whole evening.  Violetta wears natty cocktail dresses in town and trousers, looking like an environmental activist, in the country.  I think we are meant to doubt that the relationship can possibly last.  The elder Germont brings his daughter to persuade Violetta to change her mind and it is his ill-treatment of the daughter that leads to Violetta’s capitulation.  It’s done without an interval and we were out in well under two hours.

Alfredo interrupts Sempre libera from the auditorium and, at the end, his father makes his entrance there making a wonderful separation from the two lovers.  Then Alfredo joins him and they watch Violetta, on her own, dying and going away from them.  It’s a wonderful effect, concentrating our attention, as it has been most of the evening on Violetta herself.

It’s a production which requires really detailed, thoughtful acting and where there is no hiding behind crinolines or in beds.  It’s cut – no dancing in the second scene of Act II, no chorus in Act III and no cabaletta for Di Provenza.  There is a real link, however, between the musical performance and what went on onstage and a rare honesty about the acting.  I was only really puzzled by one part – I don’t think it was clear enough what happened at the end of Act II – Alfredo didn’t throw his money at Violetta, I didn’t notice a challenge, there just seemed to be some kind of brawl and most of the curtains were brought down.  I don’t know what was going on there.

There were, however, three very fine performances indeed from the leads.  Corinne Winters is a talent to watch.  Vocally, she makes the challenges sound easy and manages both the exuberant coloratura of Sempre libera and the legato of Addio del passato with equal panache.  She found the passion for Amami, Alfredo and the pathos of Dite alla giovine.  This was combined with energy and an ability to convey visually the torture that Violetta goes through with absolute truthfulness.  I hope we’ll see more of her.

Ben Johnson was Alfredo.  It’s not a particularly Italianate sound but he sings stylishly and with attention to the words.  He was a believable bookish outsider.  Anthony Michaels-Moores’s elder Germont was outstanding.  The voice may not be as smooth as it once was, but I don’t think it needs to be for this role and I don’t know how anyone could not admire the way in which he opened the second stanza of Di Provenza – managing to be tender, soft and firm with his son.  He’s a fine actor and caught the stiff-necked, bigotted provincial to perfection.  The distinction between his treatment of Violetta, his daughter and his son was beautifully done.

The smaller roles were well enough performed with some very good acting indeed from all of them even if none made you sit up vocally.

Michael Hofstetter conducted, absolutely in tune with the production and got strong playing from the orchestra.

This was a production that, I thought, got as close to the heart of Traviata as any other than I’d seen.  It’s pared down and goes straight to the emotions and was rivetting to watch.  It made me angry and it made me think.  I didn’t, however, find it moving but perhaps that’s not the crucial thing here.  I’d urge anyone who loves opera to go and see it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: