Maria Agresta’s Fabulous Munich Violetta

GermanyGermany Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Bavarian State Orchestra / Omer Meir Wellber (conductor), Munich Nationaltheater, 27.7.2012. (JMI)


Direction: Günter Krämer
Sets: Andreas Reinhardt
Costumes: Carlo Diappi
Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel


Violetta: Maria Agresta
Alfredo: Ramón Vargas
Germont: Simon Keenlyside
Flora: Heike Grörtzinger
Annina: Tara Erraught
Gaston: Francesco Petrozzi
Douphol: Christian Rieger
Doctor Grenvil: Christoph Stephinger
D’Obigny: Tareq Nazmi

It is not easy to replace an artist like Anja Harteros overnight, but the Munich Opera, for its La traviata, had to, and succeeded in doing it. If, as I say, it’s true that the quality of an opera house can best be told by the way it deals and fares with substitutions and unforeseen cast changes, it is obvious that Munich is among the rarified elite of opera houses.

Günter Krämer’s production premiered in 1993 and it cannott be long before it is replaced, uninteresting as it is. It is a very dark, minimalist production, with a touch of symbolism, in which nothing adds up in the end. The first act is limited to the front of the stage, behind which there is a set of doors through which the guests move in and out. In the second act the whole stage is open and on the ground, a chair and a great swing — memorabilia from former, happy times of the couple in love. Then we return to the darkness for Flora’s party, with a huge chandelier on one side of the stage. Finally, the death of Violetta takes place front stage, where a mattress is the only prop. Behind it lies the fallen chandelier and the swing in the dark.

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The stage direction doesn’t improve this; especially the handling of the chorus at Violetta’s party is awfully childish. The second act offers more dramatic interest, but that’s based primarily on the stagecraft of the performing Germont père and Violetta. Krämer also places the mute character of Alfredo’s sister on the scene, whose presence and performance are pathetic. At this point, at the latest, you begin to wonder how this production has survived for 19 years. It is simply too traditional, poorly done, too vulgar, and too bloody boring.

Omer Meir Wellber, current musical director of Palau de Les Arts in Valencia, was in charge of the music and salvaged quite a bit. There cannot have been many rehearsals during the Festival period, so the quality result of Wellber, his control of all the forces at his disposal, and the energy he deployed in his conducting, were all the more surprising. His lively, quickening tempi made this one of the best performances I remember from him.

Anja Harteros, already indisposed at Covent Garden were she had to cancel her Desdemona, was replaced by Maria Agresta as Violetta. That young singer’s performance was a major success. Anja Harteros, excellent as she is, is adored in Munich, which might have made Maria Agresta’s debut more intimidating. But the Italian soprano showed courage, overcame the difficulties, and managed to emerge triumphantly from the trial-by-fire. I had the opportunity to see her a month ago in Valencia in Il trovatore as Leonora and the impression was very positive, although it seemed to me that she was a lyric soprano and not the spinto that Leonora needs. After seeing her as Violetta, I find my opinion confirmed. Her voice is beautiful, with a very attractive dark timbre that solidly places her as a lyric soprano. She has an irreproachable technique, good expressiveness, and navigates the voice easily throughout the tessitura, including the high E at the end of ‘Sempre Libera’. If Agresta is careful with her repertoire-choices, and declines offers for heavy roles, she will undoubtedly have a major career.

Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas showed his beautiful light-lyric tenor as Alfredo, although the voice gets notably thinner at the top of the range. In my opinion he should also retool his career, since roles like Don Carlo, Manrico or Jacopo Foscari don’t seem well suited for his voice which he ought not want to hurt (any further). He had problems at ‘Parigi, o cara’, singing the aria of the second act well, but lacked brightness and a high C at the end of the cabaletta, of which he offered only one verse.

Simon Keenlyside, a magnificent singer, was an excellent Germont, dramatically as well as vocally. Keenlyside is carefully adding heavier characters to his repertoire, and his beautiful timbre, the homogeneity of registers, and the intention of his phrasing, make him a superlative Germont. Among the secondary roles, Heike Grotzinger was a serviceable Flora, Tara Erraught a luxury delight as Annina, but Christpoh Stephinger a poor Doctor Grenvil.

José Mª Irurzun