Pretty Yende and Juan Diego Flórez bring to life Simon Stone’s intriguingly staged, very well directed Vienna La traviata

AustriaAustria Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Giacomo Sagripanti (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Jakob Pitzer) from the Vienna State Opera, 7.3.2021. (JPr)

Juan Diego Flórez (Alfredo) and Pretty Yende (Violetta Valéry)

Production – Simon Stone
Revived by Simon Stone, Stephen Anthony Whiting and Robin Ormond
Stage – Bob Cousins
Costumes – Alice Babidge
Lighting – James Farncombe
Video – Zakk Hein
Chorus director – Martin Schebesta

Violetta Valéry – Pretty Yende
Flora Bervoix – Margaret Plummer
Annina – Donna Ellen
Alfredo Germont – Juan Diego Flórez
Georgio Germont – Igor Golovatenko
Gaston – Robert Bartneck
Baron Douphol – Attila Mokus
Marquis of Obigny – Erik Van Heyningen
Doctor Grenvil – Ilya Kazakov

The more I see and hear from Vienna I find myself confounded by how the various recent stagings undermine my previous notion of a conservative Viennese opera audience. Of course, there was no one else in the Vienna State Opera apart from those involved in presenting this La traviata, new to the opera house but first seen in Paris late in 2019. Therefore, what the paying public would have made of it all remains to be seen, but – the mess that is Flora’s party notwithstanding – it is intriguingly staged, very well directed and we encounter some totally believable characters. The latter is mainly because there is not a period setting – who would expect that anyway? – and Violetta is a social media influencer whose face sells beauty products. Everything becomes clear from the images on two facing sides of Bob Cousins’s single revolving set which is an open cube and begins with showing us Violetta in close-up open her closed eyes.

During the Prelude to Act I with its miasma of death we see how Violetta lives her life in the full glare of her adoring followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – replete with evidence of partying, conversations, and lots of emojis – and this extends to her treatment at a clinic run by Dr Grenvil. It is cancer and not tuberculosis that Violetta Valéry now suffers from, though it would have been very easy to revise the ending to have her succumb to coronavirus at the end and make what we saw even more relevant to 2021.

When the set stops turning we are at the entrance to a famous nightclub (Martina’s) where the guests are queuing to get in. Almost spilling out of her shiny, sexy (rose gold?) dress, Violetta is a VIP and doesn’t need to wait in line but is happy to pose for selfies with her adoring fans. When we see ‘inside’ there are white walls and a huge pyramid of champagne glasses. Alfredo (in black tie) climbs up to the top to pop a large bottle and trigger the brindisi. Violetta doesn’t feel at all well and she exits the party, the stage turns again with pictures of red camellias (if they are not they should be) and Violetta vapes at the back of the club amongst the recycling bins and crates of empties where she finds Alfredo for their duet. Back inside Violetta prepares to leave in her white limousine, we experience her passing through Paris during ‘Ah, fors’ è lui’ and wondering if Alfredo is the one for her and via Place des Pyramides she concludes that she needs to be free to live her own life (‘Sempre libera’) at a corner kebab shop (Paristanbul). There she exchanges passionate messages as we hear Alfredo’s ‘Amor è palpito’ and we see him ‘round the corner’ at his computer.

And so on through the rest of the opera with different imagery on the two outer screens and miscellaneous scenery and stage furniture to bring scenes to life in the open part. Alfredo crushes grapes during ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’; there is a tractor with a trailer and bales of hay for when Alfredo’s father confronts Violetta (now in green jacket, slacks, and wellies) at their country retreat and later they will be seen near a small chapel. We see all Violetta’s final demands and overdrawn bank statements (-120,541,92 euro!) and are supposed to believe the scandal of her relationship with Alfredo is preventing his sister marrying a Saudi prince. We see two long tables with beer-swilling picnickers in a park as Violetta professes her love for Alfredo (‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo’) before rushing off and we watch her in the back of a car leaving their life behind, as the locket Alfredo gave her is returned to him thanks to DHL!

Vienna State Opera’s La traviata Act III final scene

Those easily shockable are best skipping past the following party scene which is eventually – after some sexual shenanigans in garish neon – a fancy-dress and cocaine-fuelled orgy orchestrated by Dr Grenvil with a pink penis strapped to his head (don’t ask!). There are hints of bondage and S&M whilst Alfredo arrives as Donald Duck and plays blackjack online and Violetta is a glittering silver goddess. I will stand by my opinion that this party is somewhat misconceived. Nevertheless, the act still ends compellingly as Alfredo humiliates Violetta and forces money on her. The assembled guests lament whilst the now remorseful Alfredo’s father shows his concern for Violetta who has retained her dignity throughout this dramatic turn of events.

The final act begins with Violetta as one of four patients having chemotherapy and I suspect she is hallucinating as she awaits Alfredo’s return but fears it is all too late. She relives happier times with or without Alfredo and we are back by the bins and at the Place des Pyramides before the final scene with Violetta in a single hospital bed and on a drip. After Alfredo finally arrives she tells him to move on with his life, before she gets out of bed in her hospital gown to rail against her impending death (‘E’ strano! … Cessarono gli spasmi del dolore’) and walk towards the light which had its own visceral effect.

For Simon Stone’s Konzept of her character Pretty Yende was an outstanding Violetta. She is a picture of glowing health whereas in a ‘traditional’ production she would need to be a more standard consumptive heroine. In Act I, Yende radiates sexual allure to which she adds a near-perfect soprano technique with agile and accurate coloratura and sparkling top notes (especially the high E flat at the end of the cabaletta). Her Violetta plays hard to get – after all she is not short of male attention – but is won over by her ardent suitor despite wanting always to be free. Among Yende’s very best moments are the achingly sad ‘Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura’ – where she agrees to abandon Alfredo so as not to thwart his sister’s plans for a high-profile marriage – and her deeply affecting and prayerful farewell to life (‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’) sung with naked expression and aching lyricism.

Her Alfredo was none other than Juan Diego Flórez and although this is a production I suspect he did not feel entirely comfortable in, he was as ever the consummate tenor stylist. He was a little in the shadow of Yende’s larger-than-life Violetta, but it made perfect sense such a nice and earnest guy – as this Alfredo appeared to be – could woo her and that she would sell her possessions to support their rural idyll, something that truly shocked him. Flórez‘s voice has a refined purity and mellowness that came through the loudspeakers well though it is not a typical Verdi voice. Regardless, he must be admired for his ability to sing long legato lines and climactic high notes while crushing grapes. Then he sang the cabaletta ‘Oh mio rimorso!’ suitably vehemently and proved his acting ability in the finale of Act III when losing any self-control and venting fury at Violetta’s perceived deceit he sang ‘Ogni suo aver tal femmina’ which was full of emotion. He throws his Blackjack winnings at Violetta’s face before scrabbling on the floor to get them back and doing it again. In the last act Flórez sang with great refinement during the duet and sang softly in ‘Parigi, o cara’ hoping that Violetta might recover whilst fearing the worst.

The baritone Igor Golovatenko was Georgio Germont which is not one of the longest Verdi baritone roles, but the character does seem to go on and on having made his point. Golovatenko was an unusually sympathetic Giorgio Germont, even when relentlessly hounding Violetta to give up Alfredo. Reminding him of his family in Provence ‘Di provenza il mar’ was magnificently sung with attention to every word and the feeling behind the music. (There was no one in the opera house to applaud Golovatenko after this aria though I was applauding at my laptop!)

Margaret Plummer as Flora (Violetta’s party loving friend), Donna Ellen as Annina (her gofer), Attila Mokus as Baron Douphol (her erstwhile lover) and Ilya Kazakov as Dr Grenvil (her oncologist) gave solid performances in the little Verdi gives them to do. Under the baton of young Italian conductor Giacomo Sagripanti – a name I am unfamiliar with – this La traviata was bursting with energy and he brought out all the passion in Verdi’s score with the quality of the string playing in the preludes as sublime as you would expect from the Vienna State Opera orchestra; tender, yet not without underlying tension. Throughout Sagripanti was scrupulously sympathetic to his principal singers whilst encouraging the vibrant dynamism of the splendid chorus.

At the end – because there was no audience present to pass judgement on all that had gone before – there were just the closing credits featuring the motto ‘Wir spielen für Österreich’: a dispiriting end to a great opera event.

Jim Pritchard

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1 thought on “Pretty Yende and Juan Diego Flórez bring to life Simon Stone’s intriguingly staged, very well directed Vienna <i>La traviata</i>”

  1. The Paris version of this production had a real cow in Act 2. The entire sense of this production is lost without the cow.


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