Saturday, December 21, 2013

Italian Drama On/Off-Stage

La Traviata
Teatro alla Scala – December 18, 2013

La Scala’s season opening production of La Traviata was dripping with drama: Diana Damrau missed her entrance in the Second Act, Piotr Bezcala declared he won’t ever sing again in Italy after the hard core loggionisti booed him, director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Daniele Gatti were booed even more for allegedly butchering Verdi’s masterpiece - and at La Scala, of all theaters!

I happened to be in Milan during the run of this production and decided I simply had to see it to have an informed opinion on such a juicy show (also, I have a soft spot for Željko Lučić). Getting tickets for La Scala is no easy business, the box office sells out almost immediately and the black market is full of dubious scalpers who will meet you in a dark alley and ask 600 Euros for a partial view ticket that may or may not actually let you into the theater. So, the only way is the old school one of “knowing someone” and, thank goodness, I did: a family friend with a season subscription very gracefully let me go in his place.

La Scala’s public is definitely cockier and way more ferocious that the Met’s. Before the show started, my neighbor was very colorfully complaining that he heard Damrau was sick and was going to be replaced by Irina Lungu and that was going to be a total “sòla” (“ripoff”). He was evidently expressing the general sentiment, since when La Scala’s general manager Stéphane Lissner made the relevant announcement on stage, he was assailed by a chorus of boos and other insults (and if these days folks still threw market vegetables to performers on stage am sure they would have tossed a few tomatoes to the poor guy).

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

Also, when conductor Daniele Gatti made his entrance and took his spot on the pit, someone in the audience yelled “falla piu’ veloce stasera!” (“make it faster tonight!”), voicing the widespread criticism that Gatti chose an unusually slow tempo for this production. I will say that Gatti’s choice of tempi may have been academically respectful of Verdi’s 1854 revision for the Venice San Benedetto theater, but was indeed a bit all over the place, some parts too slow (the first scene, not matching the party’s frenzy), others way too quick (Germont’s aria “D’un padre e d’una suora / t’affretta a consolar” – poor Lučić was struggling to keep up).

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
The curtain opened the moment the orchestra started to play, and during the overture Violetta stood in the middle of a big room with a few fancy chairs scattered throughout, high ceilings with antique molding and a Parisian-like balcony overlooking the street. She spent the overture in front of a mirror, looking pretty ennuied and fatigued while getting ready for her party, fixing her make-up and adjusting her blue gown, silvery necklace and red flower in her hair, at times with the help of a mature redhead Annina, who looked and behaved more like a retired opera diva than a servant (and popped up throughout the opera when you least expected her).

When the party erupts and Violetta’s guests arrive, the decadent modern-day take was painfully evident, with the chorus wearing a hodgepodge of trashy party dresses and behaving in line with their outfits. If the direction’s aim was to depict Violetta’s party life as vane and shallow, it was definitely successful, just not a pleasant sight. While the direction of the duets with Alfredo worked pretty well, Dmitri Tcherniakov chose to have Violetta perform her usually solitary arias “E’ strano! e' strano!” and Follie, delirio vano e’ questo! while drinking hard liquor and clunking glasses with a silent over-dressed and over-jeweled Annina who thus emerges in a role of girlfriend-confidante who did not add much and, rather, was unnecessarily distracting.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
The country estate scenes were to me the most successful direction-wise, with the couple having retired to the tranquility of the countryside, they indulge in simple domestic pleasures, Alfredo rolling out home-made pasta dough, Violetta (sporting comfy furry slippers) scolding him on the proper way to do it while arranging market vegetables to be prepped on the kitchen table. These moments were cute, heart-warming and real, just the way the enjoyment of pure romantic love should be and also worked wonderfully well with the music. It was also a nice touch having glimpses of Germont father pacing back and forth outside of the kitchen window, as looming presence that will ruin the idyllic romance. The only thing that did not work here was an odd creepy rag doll sporting Violetta’s party outfit of the opening scene sitting on the kitchen counter (why?) that Alfredo nurses and cuddles when he realizes that his lover is gone. While I get what the director tried to accomplish here, it was totally unnecessary and looked pretty awkward.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

With the second act, we’re back to a trashy party, this time allegedly in costume, though the only character really wearing one seems to be Flora (with a ridiculous native American huge feathered headpiece), while the rest of the attendees were maybe dressed up like distasteful party people if that’s even a costume. Also, why on earth is Violetta wearing a small Afro wig? And she takes it off at the end of the act? Outfits aside, I had a major problem here with the chorus singing arias such as “Noi siamo zingarelle” and “Di Madride noi siam mattadori” that are normally sung and danced by characters looking and behaving like gypsies and matadors, just because that’s how they dressed up for the party. Here they did not have any such costumes and their sang words did not really match their acting as they just paced back and forth nonsensically following poor Alfredo from one end of the stage to the other. Drastic departures from the meaning of the libretto like these are pure heresy, no excuses allowed. The “money-throwing” scene though was effective, with the bills flying in the frame of the arched walls and the crowd in the background.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
The final act was set back in Violetta’s apartment, this time virtually empty, except for a mirror, two chairs, a tray of medicines, a phone, a comforter, an ikea cardboard box full of pictures and again the odd creepy Violetta-looking rag doll. The bare bones sets were successful in conveying the fact that the poor woman sold everything (cannot even afford a bed) and provided a perfect barren backdrop for the heart-wrenching arias throughout the finale. A couple of things did not entirely work though: Alfredo sings “Parigi o cara” while trying to force Violetta to eat a cream puff (while I get he’s feeling awkward about the whole situation, this was too much) and, most importantly, Violetta dies alone on her chair, while Annina is disdainfully chasing away Alfredo and his dad, as if to say “it’s all your fault now get out of here”. Call me romantic, but to me Violetta must die in the arms of her loved one and leave him heart-broken. Tcherniakov’s take was excessively nihilist in denying the unfortunate couple even this final comfort, as if to say it’s too late, nothing can fix this anymore.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala
Having said all that, if one has really good singers, sets and direction become secondary. And La Scala had some pretty good ones. Piotr Beczala sounded fresh, confident and with a full-bodied tone and, although he is warmer and more passionate when he sings in Russian (think about his Lensky in the Met’s opening Onegin), his Alfredo was convincing if a touch clueless at times, though that’s part of the character.

Željko Lučić was, as usual, magnificent with his signature sweet effortless power and musicality that are just made for Verdi. His duets with Violetta were warm and tender, expressing the quintessential Verdian father-daughter love, as  Lučić always does so masterfully in Rigoletto. I was curious to see whether his voice sounded even stronger at La Scala than at the Met given the theater’s size difference, but I will say that the Met’s acoustics are such that really amplify it all, even more than a smaller space like La Scala.

Photo Credit: Brescia & Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

But it was soprano Irina Lungu who literally brought the whole house down, including my cynical skeptic neighbor who at the end was applauding like a madman and ecstatically yelling brava, brava!  While she was understandably tense at the beginning given her last minute engagement, she loosened up towards the end of the first act party scenes and grew stronger throughout the opera, delivering a truly terrific performance in the third act, her “Addio, del passato” making me weep like a baby. She movingly cried herself at curtain call when the whole theater rose to salute her enthusiastically which, coming from the ferocious La Scala’s public, was quite a sight.   

All in all this production had some good and bad moments, the modernizing efforts to keep La Traviata contemporary and real being successful only a few times, with some unfortunate silly touches (that rag doll!). The very core of the emotions at stake, however, was conveyed powerfully, except maybe in the nihilist finale. It was brave of La Scala to commission such a controversial production to open its season on the Verdi bicentenary – there’s nothing like some good extra-curricular drama to stir the drama on stage.

- Lei

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