Glyndebourne’s Low-key Traviata Fails to Convince

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Glyndebourne Festival 2014 – Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Filmed ‘live’ at the Glyndebourne Theatre and seen at the Barbican Cinema, London, 10.8.2014. (JPr)


Glyndebourne’s La traviata (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Violetta Valéry: Venera Gimadieva
Alfredo Germont: Michael Fabiano
Giorgio Germont: Tassis Christoyannis
Gastone de Letorières: Emanuele D’Aguanno
Doctor Grenvil: Graeme Broadbent

Director: Tom Cairns
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Lighting Designer:  Peter Mumford
Video and Projection Designer: Nina Dunn
Film Director: François Roussillon

Here is a quote for publicity-conscious Glyndebourne as said by John Suchet and overheard by me at the end of this Barbican Cinema broadcast – how this had been ‘The best operatic experience of my life!’ One can only – with respect – suggest three possibilities; either he has listened to too much Beethoven, been at Classic FM too long … or has not seen much opera. The strength of this performance sounded as if it was the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder since as Violetta hardly seemed ill and just appeared to ‘give up the ghost’ at the end – alone on bare stage she walks towards the back before collapsing – I was unconvinced and unmoved by a low-key new production better suited to the Glyndebourne Tour it will soon be appearing on than the Festival itself which should be presenting something more nuanced, illuminating and – especially when considering La traviata – more visceral.

Having distanced myself from the shabby-chic cinema in Notting Hill Gate where – because of poor projection – I did not enjoy watching and listening to Der Rosenkavalier earlier in the season ( ) I retreated to the Barbican Cinema for an all-round much better experience of this La traviata in near-perfect sound and vision. The actual presentation of the performance also had improved despite my concern that there are seemingly only two places in Britain where the sun always shines; those picturesque villages in TV’s detective series Midsomer Murders … and Glyndebourne apparently. With the country being buffeted by wind and rain because of ‘Hurricane Bertha’ everyone was picnicking happily on the lawns in traditional ‘black tie’ – established by Glyndebourne’s founder John Christie – that we were informed is worn out of respect for the performers and the tremendous effort behind what would be seen on stage. (This attire use to be de rigueur too at Bayreuth when I first went there 26 years ago but thankfully in these more enlightened times the dress code there is much less strictly formal.)

I suspect Katie Derham’s introductions were pre-recorded on a sunnier day. On the synopsis and cast list handed out at the Barbican there was no mention that this was ‘live’ from Glyndebourne which of course it isn’t because at best we join them ‘live’ in the second half. On the transmission it says ‘filmed live’ and I am always actually intrigued by what might be the converse to this? Somebody might have suggested to Ms Derham that wearing an evening gown cut lower at the front than anything Violetta was given to wear was not a brilliant idea. The best of the interviews and background films we were shown was with Sir Mark Elder who reminded us how La traviata is ‘eternally popular’ and how ‘this great story was set by Verdi to music of such direct humanity … music that absolutely fits the words, phrase by phrase, the balance between the word and the story and the music is perfect. He knows just when we want another great tune, doesn’t he?’ Mark Elder went on to say how together at a time when the composer wanted to retire he wrote, as well as La traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore and how these ‘represent his highest achievement, the balance between the poetry and the drama are all in complete harmony and I think La traviata remains a great masterpiece.’ I generally agree but what is all that Spanish nonsense in Act II that brings the story to a temporary halt.

My sole visit to Glyndebourne last summer was to the splendid revival of Richard Jones’s staging of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, invigorated by Mark Elder’s conducting of an excellent cast and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. For Tom Cairns’s new La traviata he conducts without a score Glyndebourne’s ‘house band’, the London Philharmonic, who sound as though they play splendidly for him – and there is considerably more drama and emotion in his lovingly shaped, clear-sighted reading than was often portrayed on stage. There was an eerie sobbing shimmer from the violins during the Preludes to Acts I and III that was probably deliberately quite Wagnerian. On occasions in the first half Mark Elder appeared to rush his singers somewhat but was more suitably supportive the longer the opera went on.

Designer Hildegard Bechtler’s influences were – by her own admission – eclectic and although we look as if we could be in the twentieth-first century there is a slightly period feel to what we see. The set had what looked like an velvet-upholstered curved wall stage-left and a more plain one on the other side; there are a few chairs and other bits of furniture now and again and apart from a gap though which we can see some subtle video (by Nina Dunn) that is all there is. Before each act Violetta appears to materialise on her bed as if what we are seeing is her life flashing before her, then – as I mention above – strangely she does not die on that bed at the end. Tom Cairns concentrates on just the theme of young love thwarted by convention and so Violetta might just as well have been an older women or of a different religion rather than a courtesan. There is little attention paid to social class issues, decadence, or even to illness because although Violetta tells us what she has is terminal, she just faints rather than coughs – even though she is shown surrounded by loads of pills in Act III. The glamour in the party scenes is only represented by the elegant costumes and what we are shown is a moneyed – racially non-diverse – world that most of the audience at Glyndebourne inhabit themselves, peopled with those who they, too, would be happy to share champagne with.

30-year-old Venera Gimadieva, is apparently a new Russian superstar … a new Netrebko. We were told she is already a veteran of a number of previous La traviatas and she is clearly a fine actress and an accomplished singer. Her voice did sound as if it took a little while in Act I to gain its focus but then she sang with admirable security while never convincing me of her character’s fragility and impending fate. Unless she has brought to Glyndebourne her interpretation of Violetta, I would have thought Tom Cairns could have made her appear less like one of those trophy Russian girlfriends/wives who have latched on to wealthy men around the world. I felt zero chemistry between her and Alfredo and felt Germont père was more realistically her prey. Her Act I fireworks were competently negotiated but because of her Slavic background there is a typical darkness to Venera Gimadieva’s voice that early on made me think she sounded more like an Azucena than a Violetta.

Michael Fabiano was born in New Jersey, he was lanky and sharp-suited and looked as if he had stepped out of an episode of The Sopranos that was based there. François Roussillon’s close-ups did him no favours and although he sang ardently he was not much of an actor resorting most of the time to a wide-eyed lovelorn look on his face and stock operatic gesticulating. An even blander characterisation was Tassis Christoyannis’s Giorgio Germont who in his overcoat looked like a bearded version of Peter Capaldi’s new Dr Who but even grumpier and more stony-faced. The affection Magdalena Molendowska’s caring Annina had for her mistress radiated from the screen but this relationship was underdeveloped and most of the other characters were mere cyphers though reliably sung.

Jim Pritchard

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