La Traviata (Petersen)

Verdi La Traviata opera to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Directed 2011 at the Oper Graz by Peter Konwitschny. Stars Marlis Petersen, Kristina Antoine Fehrs, Fran Lubahn, Giussepe Varano, James Rutherford, Taylan Memioglu, Ivan Oreščanin, David McShane, Konstantin Sfiris, Juraj Hurny, Richard Jähnig, and Theresa Wakonig. Tecwyn Evans conducts the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester and the Chrous and Supernumeries of the Oper Graz (Chorus Master Bernhard Schneider). Set and costume design by Johannes Leiacker; dramaturgy by Bernd Krispin and Bettina Bartz; lighting design by Joachim Klein; directed for TV by Myriam Hoyer. Grade: D

I really want to give this title an "F" because I resent the time lost from by life forever by watching it twice. It's even worse than the Admeto that I used to consider the worst opera HDVD. But I relent for two reasons.

First, I did like the singing of Marlis Petersen, the German soprano who plays Violetta. Marlis is a kind of universal artistic genius who sings, plays instruments, can act and dance, is thin, and is pretty enough to play a lot of those female opera roles that are so hard to convincingly cast. 

Second, I read two good reviews of this Traviata. Mark Mandel in the March 2012 Opera News (at page 63) praises Petersen effusively for her singing.  Mike Ashman in the April 2012 Gramophone (at page 78) seemed to like the production). Finally, someone at the website OperaJournal issued at least faint praise. To all these expert assessments I'll only add that Marlis is able to stand on a chair and fall sideways to the floor without seeming to break the crash.

But in my view the rest of the show crashes even harder.

I get the feeling the word was out in Graz to produce this as cheaply as possible. Start by cutting about a third of the score (shorter rehearsals). Reduce the props to a chair and 20 decks of cards. Spend no money on sets other than some extra curtains that singers can hide behind, drag about, or hang from. And let's update to today so the chorus members maybe can bring costumes from their own closets.

Since this is an update, we have to modernize the characters. Now Violette is just a whore.  And since she is the heroine, all the other characters are degraded even more. Alfredo is a bumbling case of arrested development; father Giorgio a brut; Doctor Grenvil a clown. Critic Mandel calls this a one-person opera (about Violetta). I say it's a no-person opera. Either way, there's nobody to care about, no story left, and no logic to guide the director. This leads to the ridiculous Act Three where Violette, dying of TB, spends her last 20 minutes (count 'em) dressed in sheer hose, black panties, and black slip (bare shoulders and arms) wandering about the stage before she flops to the floor (no bed in this sick room) and writhes about the floor to death.

So how can we cheaply give this show some sort of design feature? Well, why not flood the stage with mustard yellow lighting until the death scene when you switch to urine yellow. The yellow lighting makes everybody appear to be dying from jaundice, which maybe was intended by director Konwitschny as a moral for us. But the PQ in home video is profoundly ugly and irritating to watch. So what about the orchestra? Well, the prelude sounded sweet and promising. But after struggling with the intellectual and visual slag heaps described above, I don't remember much else about the orchestral music. And the most celestial music ever recorded would not be able to keep this show from dying of consumption.

Peter Konwitschny justifies all this by claiming to make it relevant to modern times, which was Verdi's intention in 1853. Well, that was 159 years ago. To really update La Traviata, Violetta would become a porn star dying of AIDS; she would be living in a modern palace surrounded by wickedly beautiful people, and the entertainment at the party scene would really have the opera world talking. This would be a costly rascal to cast since not three female members of a typical opera chorus would be good-looking enough. And the set would have to be an expensive knock-out with a live tiger in a cage and lots of giant screen high-definition TVs running endless loops of stuff like naked pole dancers.

No, I think all this chatter from Konwitschny about updating is mostly a rationalization. To me it appears he somehow he found himself stuck in backwater Graz with a crummy budget. He knocked the job out as fast as possible and got out of town. I really don't blame him. And everything he did is allowed by the law of artistic judgment that applies to a stage director.  But the law also allows me to arrive at the conclusion that the director's judgment was poor or even rotten. And now they offer this to you at full price. Fine, buy it and judge for yourself.

Sum up. Starting with an "F," I'll bump the grade up to "D" just to make Marlis maybe feel a bit better to what happened to her.