Pic: Charles Duprat.

Opera, Reviews, Screen

La Traviata (Opéra National de Paris) review

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NB: this is a review of Opéra National de Paris’ La Traviata, broadcast in Australian cinemas as part of the Palace Opera and Ballet 2019-2020 season.


The title of La Traviata literally means ‘the courtesan’ – or perhaps more figuratively ‘the fallen woman’ or ‘the woman led astray’. Verdi originally intended to give what is now his most popular opera (and the most frequently performed in the world) the somewhat grandiose title of Love and Death, but the work he eventually completed in collaboration with his regular librettist Piave deals with more down-to-earth issues of sex, money and class.

To be sure the term ‘courtesan’ is more ambiguous and refined than ‘prostitute’, but despite the more multi-faceted and elevated status of the former as the paid mistresses or ‘kept women’ of upper-class men – and even if some courtesans enjoyed a certain autonomy and even had their own literary and artistic salons – ultimately they too depended on the exchange of sex for money as professional fringe-dwellers in the demi-monde of 19th century Paris. Indeed it’s not for nothing that the most successful demi-mondaines were known as les grandes horizantales.

All of this is easy to forget today, when La Traviata has become such a staple of the repertoire – partly because the music is so ravishing, partly because we like to think we live in more enlightened post-Victorian times, but mostly because opera itself has become a cultural commodity and signifier of status that no longer communicates as directly to the public as it did in Verdi’s day. As such it invites radical renewal by a stage director who is attuned to the work’s original meaning as well as to its contemporary reception.

Simon Stone’s new production at the Paris Opera succeeds on the second front perhaps more than the first. By transposing the setting to modern-day Paris, Stone is true both to his audience and to the composer’s intentions (as with the auteur-director’s recent contemporary adaptations of Chekhov and Ibsen). More specifically this Traviata takes place in a world (and on a stage) flooded by digital content. The spectacular set by Bob Cousins features two towering, conjoined and reflex-angled video screens on a vast revolving stage; at full revolve the now reversed and obtusely-angled screens become blank white and merge with a similarly white floor to create an endlessly receding and featureless horizon. 

When facing the house, the video screens display ever-changing footage (video design by Zak Hein), from an opening close-up of Violetta’s (South African soprano Pretty Yende’s) closed and heavily made-up eyes – which slowly blink open as the haunting overture to Act 1 begins – to a recurrent marketing image of Violetta/Yende (role and singer being effectively indistinguishable here) promoting a perfume called ‘Villaine’ on a giant advertising billboard which overlooks much of the rest of the Act. They are also continually traversed by scrolling emails, texts, emojis, newsfeeds, social media posts, bank statements and medical records. 

By transposing the setting to modern-day Paris, Stone is true both to his audience and to the composer’s intentions

The effect is that real and virtual, private and public realms dissolve into each other in a société du spectacle that becomes indistinguishable from its representation on the stage-screen. This sense of a simulacrum without borders extends backstage as well as into the auditorium and foyer of the opera house at the Palais Garnier, as captured live on video before the show and between the acts, skilfully edited and included in the digital broadcast shown in cinemas. The result is that we ourselves feel as if we are not merely spectators but voyeurs participating in Violetta’s downfall.

Against this continuously morphing and shifting backdrop the revolve transports the characters on a restless journey from one narrative location to another. This occurs most effectively in Act 1, which becomes an all-night party, beginning with Violetta jumping a queue outside a club, then heading inside for her set-piece brindisi (‘Libiamo’) with Alfredo (French tenor Benjamin Bernheim), before leaving through the kitchen to a back lane (‘Oh, quai pallor/Un di felice eteara’), and then wandering the streets of Paris (‘E strano/Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima’) to a kebab-stand beside the Joan of Arc statue in the Place des Pyramides, where her closing love duet with Alfredo (‘Sempre libera’) takes place via SMS while he sits at his laptop in an internet café.

Act 2 Scene 1 ran aground for me both scenically and dramatically as the action shifted to the country retreat where the lovers have fled from Paris, and where Alfredo’s bourgeois father Germont (Québécois baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe) tracks them down, confronts Violetta and persuades her to leave his son. Scene 2 then became unmoored and drifted into the doldrums of recycled trash-camp at Flora’s party back in Paris, where an impressive array of fancy-dress costumes (designed by Alice Babbage and decorated with randomly protruding dildos) failed to enliven an orgy even more inert than the one in Eyes Wide Shut.

In this context, the function of the ‘gypsy’ and ‘matador’ choruses (surely intended by Verdi to be hired entertainers doing double duty as sex workers) seemed dramaturgically unclear, while Alfredo’s drunken e-gambling on an iPad (with his winnings displayed on the overhead screens) looked more like stage-technological gimmickry than convincingly motivated scenography. As for the putative climax of the scene, Alfredo’s challenge to Violetta’s former lover the Baron Douphol (French baritone Christian Helmer) to fight a duel to the death, his verbal and physical abuse of Violetta, and his father’s unexpected entrance and reprimand, all seemed curiously enervated and lacking in dramatic intensity.

Things became more intriguing again in Act 3, which began with Violetta languishing in a hospital ward in the terminal stages of consumption. The revolve then took her on a hallucinatory journey back through the street-scenes of Act One (recalling the closing shots of Antonioni’s L’eclisse, where the camera revisits the locations where the lovers have met throughout the film) for her nostalgic farewell aria (‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’), before arriving back at the hospital for her final trio with Alfredo and Germont (‘Prendi, quest’è l’immagine’) and then departing through a slowly widening chasm between the dark and empty video screens, as if disappearing through a fissure in social reality into a kind of ontological void.

The key performance was of course Yende as Violetta, who looked and sounded luminous (especially in her shimmering gold sequin dress in Act 1), but struggled with the demands and complexity of the role both musically and dramatically. In this she was not helped by the generally glacial tempi adopted by conductor Michele Mariotti, and too often sounded plaintive rather than energized, not only when overcome by illness in Act 3 but also in the more spirited passages of Acts 1 and 2, when the role required her to embody the wilful courtesan or passionate lover. Bernheim as Alfredo was more successful, with a gloriously relaxed lyric tenor voice and easy stage presence; but again – partly because of the tempi but also Stone’s direction – he seemed fatally passive almost to the point of defeat from the very beginning of the opera, often appearing more interested in the contents of his smart phone than in what was happening around him onstage. In the third crucial role, Lapointe’s Germont was both over-acted and under-sung, laying on the sentimental pity for Violetta but failing to underline his character’s fundamental role as the irresistible voice of bourgeois reason and patriarchal authority. 

More questionable for me was Stone’s decision to make Violetta a celebrity ‘influencer’ and fashion icon.

More questionable for me was Stone’s decision to make Violetta a celebrity ‘influencer’ and fashion icon. This glosses over the economic precarity of her position as a courtesan, along with the sexual and class dynamics that underpin her fragile status. To be sure, the toxic nexus of social media, advertising, narcissism and commercial interests might be seen as a form of prostitution, which is potentially just as exploitative, degrading and even destructive. To turn Violetta into Kim Kardashian is however to give her significantly more social agency than she has in Verdi’s opera. Conversely it reduces the physical, tangible, indeed corporeal dimension of her way of life and means of survival, which is essential not only to her tragedy, but to the musical and libidinal energy of the work itself. Perhaps this explains why Stone’s direction, Mariotti’s conducting and the performances of the singers all seemed strangely lacking in vitality.

In a pre-show foyer interview Stone cites Meghan Markle as a current-day analogy with Violetta in terms of being ostracised because of race and class; but the former (as well as being somewhat more secure in her social status than a courtesan) is as outspoken about feminism and progressive politics as she is about the challenges of being mixed race, and is surely targeted so viciously in the media and online precisely because of conservative (and implicitly sexist as well as racist) expectations regarding the wife of a British royal. In contrast, Stone makes Violetta the acquiescent celebrity girlfriend of a contemporary bourgeois, while the latter is reconceived as (in Stone’s words) “a writer, artist or architect” – in other words, a member of the knowledge/culture class, making it even more unlikely that his association with a media superstar would be in any way scandalous.

As for the issue of race – alluded to by Stone in the comparison he makes with Meghan Markle in the pre-show interview, and possibly reflected in the casting of Yende as Violetta (though curiously the role is alternated in Paris with Czech soprano Zuzana Marková, who is white) – this too is a matter of context. Like class or gender, race is a social category rather than a biological one; in other words, it’s a question of how skin-colour or heritage are valued; and this is very different in the case of a global supermodel or social media starlet, a British royal’s wife, a 19th century French courtesan, or a contemporary South African soprano. Opera singers are now increasingly cast with as little regard to race as age or body-shape. If anything, the colour of Yende’s skin only enhances her status as a stage beauty when she enters as Violetta in a gold dress with an expensive clutch under her arm and saunters past the other fashionistas outside the club; but her race effectively disappears as soon as she begins to sing; and this is surely as it should be.

In fact the most telling – and moving – moment for me was when Yende reappeared for a solo curtain-call in the blue hospital gown that was Violetta’s final Act 3 costume, and curtsied so deeply that she almost touched the floor. In this simple gesture of humility – and the tears of emotion that stained her face – I suddenly saw her journey from a small South African town to the gilded proscenium of the Opéra Garnier. In that moment, for the first and only time, I saw her as Violetta.

La Traviata, directed by Simon Stone for the Paris Opera, opened at the Palais Garnier on September 12.

It was broadcast in Australian cinemas as part of the Palace Opera and Ballet 2019-2020 season, November 15-20.

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