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La Traviata in Vienna shines but staging weak

Natalie Dessay was rapturous over the Vienna State Opera's new production of "La Traviata," declaring, "it was tailor-made for me, like a dress!"
/ Source: The Associated Press

Natalie Dessay was rapturous over the Vienna State Opera's new production of "La Traviata," declaring, "it was tailor-made for me, like a dress!"

If so, the tailor missed a stitch or two.

Sunday's premiere of Verdi's perhaps most popular work was noteworthy for two things — inspiring performances and direction and staging that was puzzling for its skimpiness.

New productions usually take months to implement at top opera companies. Assuming that was the case for director Jean-Francois Sivadier and stage designer Alexandre de Dardel, the end product should have been a staging that leaves a mark — either good or bad.

But — beyond the singers — it was hard to find anything to get excited about on stage Sunday.

Chandeliers were raised and lowered for the party scenes. Ditto for canvases depicting summer skies and flowery fields for Scene 2, at the lovers' country villa. Other than that, the setting was static — not very creative and not much beyond a concert performance.

There was one nice touch. While Violetta, the consumptive heroine, is moving closer to breathing her last, a figure in the background paints over "Violetta, La Traviata," scrawled on a brick wall — letter by letter

Thankfully the cast and orchestra were not as sere as the staging.

At 46, Dessay's voice has lost some of its flexibility. But she used it to optimum effect Sunday to depict Violetta, the courtesan with the heart of gold who sacrifices her love for the sake of honor.

To sing Violetta is a challenge. It is vocally intense and dramatically difficult, but Dessay rose to the occasion.

Her intonation was impressive, her embellishments thrilling, her vocal control admirable — and her acting superb. Although she was playing against a much younger Charles Castronovo as her lover Alfredo, there was not even a hint of an age difference credibility gap Sunday.

Verdi's original Violetta was surely more the lady of the night than the morally thoroughly pure heroine Dessay portrayed — "a whore has to be a whore," he said, when describing her character. The point though Sunday was that Dessay's interpretation was believable.

Perhaps Sivadier invested the energy he saved in the staging into dramatic coaching because like Dessay, Castronovo put on a remarkable acting performance. That complemented his edgy baritone to produce a perfect Alfredo on the edge — swinging from ecstatic, to depressive, to homicidal within a few bars of the score.

Fabio Capitanucci combined his rich baritone with a weighty stage presence in the role of Germont, Alfredo's father, who prevails upon Violetta to leave his son and save the family's honor — but feels her pain. "Weep, weep," he sings to her — but the pathos in his voice makes clear that, he, too, is innerly in tears.

Also good were Zoryana Kushpler, Donna Ellen, Carlos Osuna, Clemens Unterrreiner, Il Hong, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Dritan Luca, Wataru Sano and Franz Gruber, as the various friends, rivals or servants of the principals.

And even though the sparse approach was a minus on stage, it worked well in the orchestra pit. Conductor Bertrand de Billy's interpretation of this Verdi opera was refreshingly lean and free of musical verbiage.


George Jahn can be reached at