Mystery Affliction Affects Violetta – Twice

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Verdi: La Traviata   Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Marco Armiliato, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 18.4.15 (JR)2015-04-20_14-26-58

Violetta Valéry:,Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo Germont:,Pavol Breslik
Giorgio Germont:,Quinn Kelsey
Flora Bervoix:,Olivia Vote
Annina:, Ivana Rusko
Gastone:,Dmitry Ivanchey
Baron Douphol:,Cheyne Davidson
Marquis d’Obigny:,Valeriy Murga
Doctor Grenvil:,Dimitri Pkhaladze
Giuseppe:,Airam Hernandez
Commissionario:,Alexei Botnarciuc  [/elbat]

Production:,David Hermann
Sets and costumes:,Christof Hetzer
Lighting:,Franck Evin
Video-design:,Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck
Chorus:,Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy:,Beate Breidenbach[/elbat]

Who would choose to be an Opera Director?  Some time in advance, you secure an up-and-coming “rising star” singer, in this case the Rumanian soprano Anita Hartig; she rehearses the new production for six weeks only to be forced – by an unnamed mystery illness and with only two days to go to the première – to cancel all six performances (a remaining six will be sung by Ailyn Perez). As good fortune would have it (as so often with a house with funds at its disposal), another young rising star was not too far away, in this case Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, fairly fresh from singing the role at the Met – under the same conductor as in Zurich – after also stepping in at the Met at short notice, months before, to sing Mimi.  The New York Times hailed Yoncheva as “a sensation”. Yoncheva was down to sing Lucia (di Lammermoor) in Zurich but she has pulled out of that, saying that the role was not right for her repertoire at this moment.

Another (this time, fatal) mystery illness befalls Violetta, of course; we are also not told what it is, it matters not. Producer David Hermann places the action in some unspecific place and at no specific time, though he adds it is “pre mobile phones and pre global financial crisis”. The set is almost uniformly black with varying, occasionally puzzling video effects on the back, black screen perhaps signifying clouds, fireworks, fog and, in the last scene, daybreak – or is it an X-ray? The partying and disco dancing went on at a bourgeois corporate reception, with oversize grey leather sofas, potted plants and lots of smoking. It was all rather soulless, that’s certainly the way the producer wanted to project it, an emptiness of values, but it made for rather a dull visual show.  Act Two brings back the leather sofas into the country home outside Paris, add a few coloured cushions and a huge potted fern; Act Three takes place not in Violetta’s bedroom but in a down-at-heel hospice. Violetta occupies one of the many beds, though she never actually lies down, even to die (she stands, with assistance from Alfredo and Père Germont, and then collapses). She fumbles with her pen, a cross and a rosary. Alfredo and his father lie motionless on other beds before making their “entrances”. An old lady lies, presumably dead, on another bed.

The costume designer seems to have told the cast to visit the wardrobe unit and choose whatever they wanted to wear – it’s a veritable mishmash of styles and colours. Père Germont makes his Act 2 entrance clutching a motorcycle helmet and wearing black and a heavy black jacket.

With a Bulgarian soprano, a Czech Alfredo, a Hawaian father Germont and other singers from the States, Russia, Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia and Teneriffe, this was neither a Traviata oozing with Parisian charm and chic, nor oodles of Italianità.  Not surprisingly for a modern production, lots of stage props get knocked over, part of the buffet by Violetta, a chair by Alfredo. There is no sense of beauty, no glitter, but it appears most productions of Traviata nowadays have to be updated – the production elicited a few boos from the gallery and no real acclaim.

Vocally, this is a middling Traviata. Yoncheva is not, to my ears, the “sensation” which the New York Times called her ; but she has a fine, clean voice and acts well, even though – new to the production – she had, I thought, to be led round the stage once or twice by the “old hands”. Pavol Breslik knows the role well, having sung it in Munich and Vienna, but he’s not my type of tenor and his acting lacked passion.  The emotional temperature never rises. At one stage he gets tied up and has his hand slashed by his enemies; he hardly winces. Vocally, he was best when not on stage – his offstage aria had real power. In Act One, as the shy Alfredo, his quiet passages were bland.

Quinn Kelsey as Father Germont has the best aria of the opera, “di Provenza del mar”, and he sang it well, if a little too forcefully.

Minor roles were all competently taken, though Olivia Vote made little impression as Flora Bervoix (even though the role is small) and Cheyne Davidson was rather colourless as Baron Douphol. Ivana Rusko’s acting skills were evident as the maid Annina and I admired Dimitri Pkhaladze’s rich, dark bass as Dr. Grenvil.

Marco Armiliato in the pit (mostly) did a competent job, a few moments of awkward balance apart, eliciting precise and crisp playing from the orchestra, employing slick tempi and steady pace throughout. The Leader gave us a fine violin solo; the chorus enjoyed their contributions, as did we.

I will however not readily forget Zurich Opera’s splendid semi-“open-air” performance, some years ago now, in the cavernous ticket hall of the city’s main railway station (Hauptbahnhof), where a real ambulance came on “stage”, blue lights flashing, to take care of the dying Violetta.  A real (otherwise empty) train was used to take Germont away to Paris in Act II, in reality into an empty siding outside the station, to be returned instantly and surreptitiously on another platform.



John Rhodes

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