Germany Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera, Patrick Lange (conductor). Hamburg State Opera 23.3.2013 (GF)
Violetta: Valéry Hayoung Lee
Flora: Bervoix Maria Markina
Annina: Rebecca Jo Loeb
Alfredo Germont: Stefan Pop
Giorgio Germont: George Peten
Gastone: Manuel Günther
Il Barone Douphol: Jan Buchwald
Il Marchese d’Obigny: Szymon Kobylinski
Il Dottore Grenvil: Jongmin Park
Giuseppe Sergiu: Saplacan
Un Domestico di Flora: Gheorghe Vlad
Un Commissionario: Peter Veit
An Accordionist: Jakob Neubauer
Directed by Johannes Erath
Sets by Annette Kurz
Costumes by Herbert Murauer
Lighting by Olaf Freese
Some readers may raise their eyebrows when browsing through the cast list and finding an accordionist among the roles. Is this yet another ‘modernisation’, so common today? No, you can breathe freely. There is no musical violation on the score, which is played complete, thus allowing Violetta both verses of her big first act aria and Alfredo and Giorgio Germont both sing their cabalettas in the second act. But the accordionist is the first character we meet on arrival (admittedly rather late due to a bit chaotic traffic situation) sitting motionless centre-stage and in due time taking part in a long pantomime where Alfredo bemoans Violetta’s dead body. The performance in other words begins with the end.
‘Modernised’ it is scenically anyway and the gimmick is that the party scenes, i.e. the opening scene at Violetta’s place and the second scene of act two at Flora’s place, take place in some kind of amusement park with dodgem cars. A single car is also found at Violetta’s country house in act II and in the last scene, which in the original plays in Violetta’s bedroom, this remaining car is a wreck. We understand the symbolism but the giggles in the audience revealed that it wasn’t a very good idea. The death symbolism in the last act, with white characters gliding across the stage, was on the other hand deeply moving, though there were other symbolic characters that were more puzzling. It is easy to lose concentration on the central theme when such ‘disturbances’ appear.
As so often, though, the force of the music and the high quality acting and singing not only saved the day but made this a really memorable evening. Johannes Erath, a director whose work I can’t remember encountering before, seems to be first and foremost a superb psychologist and instructor. He, in close accord with the ensemble, had created fully rounded, believable characters and in particular the portrait of Violetta was heartrending: vulnerable, lost and still courageous in the long scene with Giorgio Germont, always apex of this opera, and in the death-scene almost visionary, imagining her own demise which was depicted in the background pantomime. Small of stature and wearing only a minimal white slip she was the most tragic Violetta I’ve ever seen. Her co-players were more restricted in their approach, but that’s more the fault of the libretto than their acting abilities. Giorgio Germont should be stiff and stern, although at the end of act II he shows some human feelings. In act III, in this production he is more of a shadow than a true character. His son, Alfredo, here is both infatuated in act I and a roaring lion in the humiliation scene at Flora’s, excessively brutal and likewise excessively contrite when he realizes his wicked deed. Flora is in effect a comprimario role but in the few moments where she is in focus she here stands out as noble and caring. Even Annina is well profiled.
Chorus and orchestra were in excellent shape and Patrick Lange realized that big portions of this delectable score in fact are chamber music sized. If we disregard the two party scenes La traviata can be seen as a chamber opera. Occasionally Lange held back so much that pianissimos were almost inaudible, at least from my position in the rear part of the stalls. This occurred in the prelude to act III. Violetta’s reading of the letter was also the only instance where her voice didn’t carry out properly. But her singing of the role was a different matter. Hayoung Lee, a native of South Korea, and a member of the ensemble at Staatsoper Hamburg since 2005, is a stupendous singer, lyrical, nuanced, technically impeccable and with impressive dramatic capacity. Her big aria in act I was overwhelming but it was in the long confrontation with Germont pêre in the second act that she really excelled – not in brilliant histrionics but in deep, restrained humanity. Dite alla giovine was sung with such warmth that even the most hardened heart must melt. Just as moving was her long solo above the chorus in the Flora scene Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore…. Marvellous!
Almost on this level was the Romanian baritone George Petean as Giorgio Germont. The possessor of a lyrical baritone, reminiscent of Renato Bruson in his heyday, his was a beautiful and nuanced impersonation of the father who cares so much for his daughter – and his own reputation! – that he demands that poor Violetta breaks with Alfredo. The long act II duet rightly became the musical highlight of the performance. Not since I heard Karl Magnus Fredriksson in the Stockholm production some six years ago I have heard singing of this calibre in this role. Petean’s compatriot Stefan Pop turned in a good reading of Alfredo’s part, not quite settled in the first act but coming into his own in act II and crowning his achievement with truly heroic singing at the end of that act. A bit weak in the middle register his top was powerful and brilliant. Russian mezzo Maria Markina was classy casting for Flora’s part.
Apart from my reservations for the dodgem car gimmick this production is a winner in every respect. I saw the third performance – the premiere was a week earlier – and this should be an attraction at Staatsoper Hamburg for years to come.