Wiener Staatsoper: Natalie Dessay in Verdi's "La Traviata"

Ah, a starring part of the repertoire starring a star. Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata has always been a beloved work. I will openly say that I personally, however, don't find it to have the most convincing plot. Though it is saved, to some extent, by the fact that Violetta knows she is doomed to die before she even meets Alfredo, it just does not seem particularly compelling to me that she dies from an inevitable sickness. Still, this production was able to bring, at least in its final moments, emotional impact even to someone such as myself. An element of this production divisive to the population as a whole, however, is Natalie Dessay. Dessay is portrayed often as being in vocal decline, and many might object that Violetta is too large for her voice (through experiences with DVDs, I was inclined to say the same). Nonetheless, she is one of the seminal performers of recent years. Tonight, though not without some small warbles, she really impressed me with her singing, but yet more so with her acting.

Synopsis & General Information:


|Giuseppe Verdi

  • Bertrand de Billy | Dirigent
  • Jean-Francois Sivadier | Regie
  • Alexandre de Dardel | Bühnenbild
  • Virginie Gervaise | Kostüme
  • Philippe Berthomé | Licht
  • Natalie Dessay | Violetta Valéry
  • Charles Castronovo | Alfred Germont
  • Fabio Capitanucci | George Germont, Alfreds Vater
  • Zoryana Kushpler | Flora Bervoix
  • Donna Ellen | Annina
  • Carlos Osuna | Gaston
  • Clemens Unterreiner | Baron Douphol
  • Il Hong | Marquis von Obigny
  • Dan Paul Dumitrescu | Doktor Grenvil
  • N.N. | Giuseppe
  • N.N. | Kommissionär
  • N.N. | Diener bei Flora

  • The set, for which I can, unfortunate find no photos, felt like half-baked innovation. Besides the back wall that seemed to serve the purpose of demonstrating that the action took place inside, the stage was relatively sparse, utilizing chairs and one futon as most of the static objects in stage. Other backgrounds, walls, etc. were comprised of hanging drapes - essentially vertical planes of cloth in various different colors. Like many of the Staatsoper's more abstract or modern designs, the primary colors in this production were black, gold, and yellow-orange. The idea of using these sheets of cloth as walls was certainly inventive, and it was intriguing to have people revealed from behind them or have them come in to cover people. The problem was that this design concept did not feel integrated into the lives of the characters and the action on stage, making it distracting because it was interesting. The most interesting macro-direction here was the spraying, in shaving cream or whipped cream, of "Traviata" and "Violetta" on the back wall of the show, and then wiping it off later. Even here, however, rather than truly corresponding to a draining of life from Violetta, the removal distracted from Violetta's aria, "Addio del passato."

  • For whatever issues there may have been with set, design, and macro-direction, the individual direction and acting of characters was great, with singing to support it. Even relatively small roles like Annina, Gaston, and Marquis von Obigny felt convincing, were perfectly audibly, and had realistic singing with sufficient interpretation to make them feel like real people. Dan Paul Dumitrescu's Grenvil struck the perfect archetypal vein of the doctor who simply has no good news to give. His helpless yet caring nature was eminently clear in Dumitrescu's performance. Zoryana Kushpler also admirably recognized Flora's stance as the carefree, perhaps corrupting friend of the protagonist. Her voice balanced aptly between light freedom, and darker sultriness. Unfortunately, the chorus was off from time to time, and one time a man even jumped up front from the chorus and made motions as though he were trying to get them back on track. I also cannot understand why these minor characters were out on stage prior to the acts beginning. While this concept might have been interesting, there simply wasn't enough to suggest they were acting in some way, so it felt like the singers accidentally wandered onto stage. Annina, played by Donna Ellen, had a strikingly poignant similarity to Dumitrescu's Grenvil. Ellen also infused Violetta's maid with a sense of knowing sadness. The closeness of Annina to the matter, however, makes her character's sorrow even more acute than that of the doctor. Donna Ellen's clear soprano helped to demonstrate this.

  • Now, Fabio Capitanucci's Giorgio Germont. This was the only character whose interpretation I found somewhat unusual and dichotomous. Certianly, Capitanucci's baritone voice was well suited to the role, and audible throughout. Capitanucci's Giorgio Germont, however, seemed a man driven only by a potentially misguided sense of needy duty, rather than a willful father. Portrayals of Germont where his initial apologies ring a bit hollow and it is not until the end that he is truly repentent seem to me more powerful. It's true that his "Pura siccome un angelo" rang true to his caring for his daughter, Capitanucci's "Dite alla giovine" and "Di Provenza il mar" felt like he was at every moment telling either Violetta or Alfredo, "Oh, yes... I am asking you to give this up but, oh, please excuse me, oh I'm so sorry." Certainly, the apologetic nature is there in the libretto, but if the apology seems to outweigth the plea, one begins to question why he would even ask. Unfortunately this nature also made it a little bit difficult to feel convinced by his admonitions in "Di sprezzo degno, se stesso rendo." This element should not make the review too harsh overall. Because he was seemingly yearning to do so since the beginning, Capitanucci's Giorgio Germont in the third act poured out incredibly heartfelt apologies for his keeping the two lovers apart for Violetta's last days. Also, Characterization aside, Capitanucci's voice was richly warm and with just the appropriate balance of tone. This made him pleasant to listen to throughout the opera.

  • Rather than leading up to the role of Violetta last, I must put Alfredo last because of the way Charles Castronovo and Natalie Dessay played off each other. As I mentioned above, Dessay's Violetta blew me away. Having watched a DVD of the production of Dessay and Florez in La Fille du Régiment and examined her recordings, I was never a fan of her fairly bright tone of a size seemingly suitable for lighter roles. I also would have given credence to the vocal decline indicated by her two surgeries. Here however, the voice was surprisingly warm. There were a few times when she was covered by the orchestra, but it didn't diminish the performance in a largely damaging way. On some of her lowest notes Dessay did have some false starts where she tried to come in but the voice just didn't come out. That said, the middle of the voice has very nicely filled out with a warm color, and while she may not be signing up for new engagements to sing Queen of the Night, her upper extension is as easy as it has always been. Finally, at the end of one of the scenes she held a pianissimo note for a length of time I can only describe as forever. As a character choice it seems like Dessay focused not on her "former life" as a courtesan, but on her foreknowledge of her impending demise.
    Her "Sempre libera" while excellently sung, felt very strongly like a renunciation, with barely a hint of yearning for still being free, and only then because she didn't want to hurt Alfredo. This gave her "Un dì, felice, eterea" with Charles Castronovo a particularly heartfelt sense, however. As the opera progressed, this only get stronger, with a heartrending, "Amami Alfredo," and finally, an "Addio del passato" that felt entirely like a farewell to life and love completely devoid of any guilt about her "wasted youth." While some might disagree with this character choice, it put an emphasis on the key point of La Traviata: love. As far as Dessay's ability to portray what choices she made, her status as a singing actress is unparalleled. She was able to be toying with Alfredo in the beginning (even if the courtesan aspect was downplayed), then when they're living together she was alluringly sexy in that unique fashion that a woman can be only with the man she loves. As the opera progressed, however, she was graceful at first, and then wretched in her demise. It is the true mark of Dessay's ability that she can sing as well front and center for her three big arias, laying on the futon with Castronovo, or stumbling and shambling right before her death. Indeed, the moments before she died were horrifying, disgusting, and sickening. This is all due to Dessay's acting. Having her remain alive, stumbling forward center stage, after the end of her singing for the orchestral end and dying with the blackout was an incredible choice, emphasizing her sickness while the others simply looked on (marred only slightly by the coordination being slightly off).
  • Charles Castronovo, being cast opposite an international superstar like Dessay, had a hard yardstick to be compared against. Nonetheless, he stood up well. His singing was rich. While perhaps the most thrilling voices are those that defy these conventions, Castronovo's voice was an excellent example of what we "expect" from a "Verdi tenor." While it might be better if he had a completely unique "undefinable" voice, to be excellent at producing the "Verdi tenor" sound is definitely not something of which to be ashamed. His "Lunge da lei... De miei bollenti spiriti" was emotionally captivating, and summed the feeling we had throughout of a rash man whose burning love was the overriding passion in his life. It's also great that he was able to make the aria an actual focal point. It is a difficult aria that sounds easier than it is, and the audience frequently loses interest after "Brindisi; Libiamo ne' lieti calici." In any case, the most impressive thing about Castronovo was his ability to match Dessay's incredible commitment to the role. He was just as able to act, standing, laying, pulling on Dessay's leg, and so on, without constraining his vocal abilities in anyway. If he paled in comparison to Dessay, it was only because Violetta is the lead.
  • As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, Dessay was the major question in this production. Also, I mentioned why I don't love La traviata as a production. Here, however, the commitment to character by the cast, most of all Dessay, completely immersed us in the world and made the passions radiate from the stage. Because she went from dying (after the music was done) to a blackout, Dessay immediately had to stand back up for curtain calls. She didn't smile, she didn't, until a couple minutes into the applause, except hers with a gracious face. I don't fault her for this, it's not that she didn't appreciate us. It's merely that to her, she was still Violetta, and she had just died.


Popular posts from this blog

Wiener Staatsoper, The Insanity of All: Richard Strauss' "Salome"