Friday, 9 July 2010

La traviata, Royal Opera, 8 July 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Violetta Valéry – Angela Gheorghiu
Alfredo Germont – James Valenti
Giorgio Germont – Željko Lučič
Baron Douphol – Eddie Wade
Doctor Grenvil – Richard Wiegold
Flora Bervoix – Kai Rüütel
Marquis d’Obigny – Changhan Lim
Gastone de Letorières – Ji-Min Park
Annina – Sarah Pring
Giuseppe – Neil Gillespie
Messenger – Charbel Mattar
Servant – Jonathan Coad
Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends of Violetta and Flora, Guests, Servants

Sir Richard Eyre (director)
Bob Crowley (designs)
Jane Gibson (movement)
Jean Kalman (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Yves Abel (conductor)

This was my first Verdi performance in the theatre for thirteen years or so: I must have been the least jaded of critics for the opening night of the revival of Sir Richard Eyre’s La Traviata. Benjamin Britten was said to listen to the music of Brahms once a year, to remind him why he loathed it. (Oddly, however, there is a recording of the op.52 Liebeslieder Waltzes from Aldeburgh.) In a similar spirit, although on a considerably broader timescale, I considered that it would do me no harm to put my prejudices or judgements to the test.

There would be many worse ways of doing so than seeing Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta. I had not actually heard her in the flesh before and was a little surprised as to how small her voice is. She made it work though, so that it could be heard perfectly well even when singing pianissimo. Her coloratura was, so far as I discerned, flawless, no mean feat. I recall watching this production on the television as a schoolboy, the first run under Solti which really made Gheorghiu’s name. She obviously does not look – or sound – so young now, but this remains still a fine vocal performance. In terms of playing herself on stage she is also clearly without peer; Angela Gheorghiu is a role one is tempted to think she was born to play. Certainly one had the impression, rightly or wrongly, that her movements, her expressions, pretty much everything she is doing – all these are very much her own thing.

Given the conservatism of Eyre’s production, and especially of Bob Crowley’s designs, that is not necessarily so bad thing. Zeffirelli with a slightly lower calorie count doubtless appeals to some even on this side of the Atlantic, but there is suspension of disbelief and then there is the size of Violetta’s bedroom in act three of this production. Otherwise, the costumes look beautiful and so forth, but it is really only the presence of the soprano that grants any sense of theatre at all: ironic, since that then reinforces the idea that opera should be about star singers and therefore about works like this, and a vicious, doubtless highly commercial circle ensues. I can only assume, moreover, that some deal had been struck with the Association of Consumptives, for the state of the audience made poor Violetta seem hale and healthy.

James Valenti looked good as Alfredo and sang ardently, but often wavered in intonation. There was strength in the singing of Željko Lučič as Germont père, though his stage presence was somewhat wooden (how much is the production at fault here?) and his style sounded just a touch incongruously Slavic. The choral singing was excellent, for which thanks must once again go to Renato Balsadonna and of course the Royal Opera Chorus itself. And the orchestra played beautifully, Yves Abel directing unobtrusively but not without character.

There remains the work itself. I tried, but the esteem in which it and Verdi’s œuvre in general are held continues to baffle me. Puccini can be mawkish, Rossini can be shallow, but there is a degree of craftsmanship to be heard and admired there. Verdi seems to combine the worst aspects of both, standing perhaps slightly above Donizetti, but that is all. The orchestration is often rudimentary – though, as I said, the orchestra made the most of what it had. Harmony is uninteresting and the accompaniments – the word for once is apt – are often so derisory. And then there is the ‘tart with a heart, transfigured’ tale: does it go beyond the level of a women’s magazine story? I fail to see how – and it now seems utterly dated, not least in its attitude towards gender. Just when one thinks there might be some psychological insight, the music of the pizza parlour returns. The ‘tunes’, memorable because one hears them so often, are rarely integrated into the musical texture, such as it is, let alone into the drama, such as it is. Given the lack of musical interest, surely a more adventurous production might alleviate the ennui. Regietheater seems a necessity here. Were this a neglected work, one could understand someone thinking it worth a try, but a staple of the repertoire? Some people might, for a variety of reasons, dislike Wagner; but being something other than Wagner is not in itself a guarantee of anything. As Pierre Boulez once put it, Verdi is ‘picture-postcard music’. He said that he would prefer to see a whole landscape; the same goes for me.


CharlotteinWeimar said...

As Verdi obviously disagrees with you, and that can be the case with any composer, far better to say nothing than to pen a prejudiced, superficial critique of his work which merely reveals your own insensitivity.

Mark Berry said...


If I may, I think you confuse taste and aesthetics. What I happen to like or dislike is, of course, simply a matter for me. There are a good few things I dislike yet can admire. The problem I have with Verdi's music is that I genuinely cannot discern anything of worth in it, irrespective of whether I might happen to like or dislike it. Of course, I might be entirely wrong in this, missing something extremely profound; many people clearly consider this to be the case. But that has nothing to do with Verdi disagreeing with me personally.

With respect to prejudice, doubtless I have some, as we all do; none of us is a blank slate, thank goodness. Insensitivity: I should like to think not. I can be moved to and beyond tears by music from Machaut to Boulez, and operatically from Monteverdi to Birtwistle.

As for superficiality, I am sure you are right. I was not setting out to pen a critique, only briefly to relate my reactions upon returning to something I generally avoid, my return having been motived in part by an attempt to determine whether I had missed something hitherto. I am not sure that it would be worth my taking a great deal of time to write something more probing, though perhaps at some point I might try to do so. In general, however, I should much prefer to write positively about something else than to continue in negative vein here.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be better to start with Otello or Falstaff, works which most agree are pretty musically sophisticated? There seems a certain wilfulness about this, not unlike Boulez's many dismissals. (Is his opera of Godot going to push the 'frontiers of theatre' more than the Mask of Orpheus? Unlikely.)

Mark Berry said...

I have tried more than once with 'Otello' and 'Falstaff', at the urgings of people whose opinions I respect. However, I am sorry to say that I really find them no more interesting: more convoluted perhaps, but that is all. Someone once described 'Falstaff' to me as being close to Debussy, which sounded promising. Alas, the comparison failed to register. But, for the sake of argument, even if these two works were immeasurably superior to 'La traviata', why then should the latter be constantly performed, to the exclusion of so many other works we never have the chance to hear?

As for the rumour concerning Boulez's opera, we shall see. It strikes me as unlikely to happen; one can but hope. However, it seems a little unfair to compare it unfavourably towards a towering masterpiece when he has not even written it yet. Even if it falls far short of Birtwistle's opera, a new work by one of the greatest composers of our time might be a slightly more pressing concern than hearing the nth revival of 'La traviata'.

Anonymous said...

I would add that Verdi's pieces must be done well, by true artistic masters, in order for their greatness to be revealed. This was likely a relative dud of a show, which wouldn't help win over someone who wasn't terribly interested in being won over in the first place. Your comments speak volumes about your taste, which is as valid as any but clearly leans toward emotionally spare works, whether early or modern. Anyone who considers Puccini "mawkish" and Rossini "shallow" is most certainly going to avoid the likes of Verdi. It is no surprise that you did not connect with La Traviata. That says everything about you, I am afraid to say, and nothing about any of these composers you so arrogantly dismiss.

Anonymous said...

I only meant that Boulez had (reportedly)dismissed Birtwistle's operatic work for that rather flimsy reason, and was now embarking on something that frankly sounds less dramatically inventive than a Philip Glass piece. (..but musically sublime no doubt.)

Anyway, as your view is evidently based on an open-minded attempt and serious engagement, it can't really be condemned, and I'll just go back to thinking Verdi is the greatest operatic composer there will ever be, and that Janacek is loathsome in every way...

CharlotteinWeimar said...

Verdi's greatness lies in his complete mastery of the medium of opera. Music and characterisation are as one. You will not find the sort of complex, sophisticated music which seems to appeal to you for that is not what what his work is about. His concern is always for the human condition and the personal dilemma, and warmth and dramatic truth radiate through every phrase he wrote.

If you were interested in overcoming your lack of enthusiasm I suggest you try following La Traviata Act 2 Scene 1 with a vocal score. In the series of duets with Violetta and Germont Pere you will discover how subtly Verdi handles their conflicting interests. The drama twists and turns as if on the head of a pin. The orchestration may not be elaborate, but Verdi's expressive writing for the singers, both musically and dramatically, is clearly the work of a master. And not for nothing is the role of Violetta one of the most coveted in the whole repertoire, for it is a character study superior to any other.

Benjamin Britten, having had occasion to attend several performances of La Traviata, wrote in an article in Opera magazine in February 1951 "I was surprised to find myself looking forward to each successive performance". And in Kobbe, Lord Harwood adds a footnote "The listener in the late twentieth century may wonder in effect if in any other opera the subtleties of its characters' hope and setbacks have been so eloquently and poignantly conveyed by means of expressive melody as here.

Henry Holland said...

I knew you'd get some responses to this post, Mark, I pretty much agree with you, though I do like Don Carlo and Rigoletto, so there's that.

(Is his opera of Godot going to push the 'frontiers of theatre' more than the Mask of Orpheus? Unlikely.)

Agreed. He's also dismissive of Die Soldaten, which I experienced in New York a few years ago. The start of the fourth act where there's 3 scenes happening simultaneously was incredible, just perfectly staged.

It seems a little odd --and more than a little defensive-- that Boulez having not written an opera, though he's talked about for over 40 years, is because he hasn't found a way to re-invent theater. I suspect it might be "If my opera *doesn't* reinvent theater, then I'm part of the problem as I perceive it".

I wish The Mask of Orpheus would be fully staged again before Birtwistle dies. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

Angela Gheorghiu, I would hope, applies many years of experience and understanding to this role. Her use of softer but finely spun threads of voice is supposed to reflect the fact that this heroine is terminally ill. The lady can muster up a very big voice indeed when it is appropriate. Her zest for life is expressed in the coloratura of the first famous aria but even then she is actually already ill. If you look back to reviews of Maria Callas' later deeply moving Traviatas it was said that she sounded tired and in small voice - I believe she replied along the lines that she had worked darned hard for years to sound ill because the character is at death's door! We are constantly encouraging opera singers to "act" these days, and they should act with their voices - don't knock them when they do it so beautifully and subtly as Angela Gheorghiu.

Anonymous said...

[A different Anonymous] I'm more Wagnerite than Verdian myself, but I think the Verdians can afford to be a little more robust in their defence! The music may seem less intellectually impressive than Wagner (et al) if judged on Wagnerian terms, but there is an astonishingly capacious intellect at work in those operas, and a unique understanding of the significances and possibilities of human utterance. It's just very hard to quantify or describe (not impossible, I reckon - good work by Lotte in Weimar above!). The German tradition by contrast almost includes its own analysis.

Anonymous said...

Wow this is such an ignorant review! The fact that you don't understand Verdi tells me more about your critical faculties than anything else. Please tell me you will not be reviewing anything else?

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean that robust! 2013 could get ugly...

Anonymous said...

Robust? OK, here goes.. (by the way, I'm the anonymous of post #3.)

Firstly, 90% of your issues can be dismissed as a problem not with Verdi but the period style: at least in Italy, nobody else was writing major operas in the 1850s, so the place that the form was at then is entirely represented by his works.

But just picking out one specific thing, this idea of the orchestra's role is just wilful or deaf. In the early work, the absence of orchestra is often used to represent an indifferent universe (eg the chorus at the discovery of Duncan in Macbeth). We all hear about how Wagner liberated the orchestra, but in his work it is still essentially in harmony with the singers. But in Verdi's later works, this idea of the orchestra develops so that, because the voice already has such work to do, the two are often set in active, antagonistic opposition. Eg, the end of the Council chamber scene in the 1881 Simon, Iago's credo, Falstaff's L'honore. The dramatic battles between pit and singer here are thrilling, especially in the theatre. Wagner, for all his modernity, still has an essentially unified vision of the world; Verdi sees fundamental discontinuity in everything, and this is how the music that represents this can feel so relevant to so many people in the 21st century (more than Wagner does, IMHO).

But having said that, to dismiss Verdi-hate out of hand is perfectly legitimate- it's like Empson's response to the critics of Milton in the early 20th century--it's just so self-evidently great that it feels wrong to rationally argue.

Anonymous said...

And I am Anonymous #5 and I feel no need to offer up anything more "robust". I have observed a tendency on the part of Wagner/20th century fans (of which I count myself one, I just don't reject other compositional eras wholesale) towards discomfort with what they see as "sentimental" emotion. Far better that a piece be grand or epic, or elevated and/or abstracted beyond the everyday human experience. Or far better that it feature the ugliest possible side of worldly existence. Anything more lyrical or romantic is anathema, whether talking about story and text or the music itself. Human beings are just generally embarrassing to these fans, in my experience. They will let themselves be swept away and inspired by Wagner's music, but of course that's different ;-). Worlds away from Verdi, right?

I think this reflects much more a psychological bent than an intellectual preference, no matter how they try to dress it up. That's why they clamor for us to offer scholarly debate about it; they are most comfortable in the realm of the cerebral. It's an old argument, and a tedious one at that. It's about taste, that's all. No need to pretend otherwise with pretentious speeches trying to show how smart they are, and superior to the rest of us.

Mark Berry said...

Goodness, this is the most comments I have had since the furore over the Jersualem Quartet's appearance in London. May I think you all for the contributions, many of which are thought-provoking and enlightening. I should probably say that I have no a priori reason to dismiss Verdi; if I heard the things many of you hear in the music, I should be delighted.

Please forgive me if I confuse any of the anonymous posters: one of the reasons it really helps to have a name, if only a soubriquet. (Having said that, I hope that a mediaevalist managed to grap 'Anonymous 4'). If I may reply first to Anonymous 3 and his/her subsequent posting, I am not sure why it is really a defence to say that this is just where opera in 1850s Italy had reached at the time. It might simply be the case that, as in England at the time, opera was not much good. After all, Italian opera would be seen by many to have degenerated during the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries from its Venetian heyday. (It is a moot point whether this constitutes 'Italian' opera at all, but let us leave that on one side.) But I am intrigued by what you say concerning pit vs orchestra and discontinuity. To a certain extent, that actually sounds a bit like Wagner, though there is always a quasi-Hegelian attempt at totality there too. But Wagner's idea, highly successful for me at least, of reviving the role of the Greek Chorus through the orchestra sounds not unlike what you are claiming for Verdi. I may of course have misunderstood.

One thing I should like to stress is that I in no way intended to oppose emotion and intellect, quite the opposite. (For what it is worth, Wagner, perhaps sometimes a little disingenuously,insisted on just such immediacy, through what he called 'emotionalisation of the intellect'.) Feeling, however, seems to me to be heightened by complexity (not for its own sake, but in the service of drama). When people, for instance, complain about Schoenberg's music being 'intellectual', it seems that they cannot actually cope with the emotional tensions that arise; it is quite the opposite of 'dry'. I recently, in another review, quoted Maurizio Pollini to this effect, and should like to do so again, since he puts it so clearly:

'The complexity in music makes the intensity. Think of the really complex pieces in the history of music – Bach’s Art of Fugue, the Prolation Mass by Ockeghem, Beethoven’s Great Fugue, Boulez’s Second Sonata. There is enormous emotion in this music! The complexity does not go against the emotion, they go together in the most magical way…'

Simplicity has its place too, of course; I think, for instance, of Gluck's Winckelmann-like, Classical 'noble simplicity'. What often seems uninteresting in 'purely musical' terms is somehow, miraculously transformed as drama. Some of you, I think see Verdi as doing something similar; at the moment, all I can say is that I do not. But I do not think it accurate to say that the operatic music I most admire is, in general, 'emotionally spare'. Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, Berg, Purcell, Birtwistle, Schoenberg, Janáček, Gluck, Tchaikovsky, Henze, Nono, Beethoven, Weber, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Strauss, Bartók, etc., etc. ... Nor is it overwhelmingly German. (Though the greatest music drama of all, the St Matthew Passion, certainly is.)

Mark Berry said...

A couple of further thoughts. Other Italian opera composers I greatly admire include Busoni and Dallapiccola, in neither of whose work is there any distinction between emotional integrity and musical complexity. I just mention this to emphasise that there is nothing nationalistic about my claims. There are many other composers I might have mentioned additionally, but shall resist the temptation to add further to the list - at least further than Berlioz.

Returning to 'La traviata,' a claim made above is that it is somehow truer to life. For me it is not at all. I know no one who acts or has acted remotely like the characters here. The concern, such as I can establish, seems to me dated in the extreme. Moreover, in terms of its attitude towards women, it is hardly a feminist classic; George Eliot it is not. But more fundamentally, with respect to a work that presents itself in terms of Realism, it does not seem very realistic at all. Contrast that, say, with Mussorgsky, Janáček, or even Berg.

Anonymous said...

Let's just say your list includes composers that might never be accused of being in any way over-indulgent, emotionally speaking, excepting perhaps Tchaikovsky or Strauss, for some. The fact that you offer these composers as being acceptable but accuse Verdi of using "rudimentary" orchestration just astounds me. Simplicity is nothing to be derided. The vocal line is everything in his music, and if it is poorly executed you are left with very little. Verdi's gift for melody architecture is beyond compare, and yes, the melodies are well integrated into the score structure and the drama. Perhaps melody isn't a cherished value, I would doubt it is. By the way, I would suggest that you allow Mr. Boulez to express himself for his own purposes, but form your own opinions separate from his.

I am not saying these discussions point to the opposition of emotion vs intellect in the music, I am saying that by and large when I have these kinds of conversations with people, they are invariably with personalities which appear to be distinctly uncomfortable with what they deem frivolous human sentiments. To say that one is quite certain human beings never behaved or felt as they do in the story of La Traviata seems rather presumptuous - certainly your life experience, or that of people you happen to know, might not have lead you into similar situations but it is a giant leap of logic to assume that your lives bear any resemblance to anyone else's, either in the present day or 100 years ago!

It is as I have noted, folks with your taste would far rather spend time with the Lulu story, which of course is as plausible (or not) as any opera tale including that of La Traviata, but because it is so horrific and decadent and lacking in a traditional love story it is therefore somehow more palatable and considered a better example of realism... I don't understand this rather arbitrary drawing of lines and categories, and I suppose realism is in the eye of the beholder, then. I certainly hope you don't know anyone who has lived the life of a character from Lulu! But is precisely what I have noticed, and only further reinforces my belief that these debates are most definitely about personal taste - not aesthetics.

Verdi was a genius of the first order. The fact that his work does not speak to you does not change that. Pointing out that the work seems old-fashioned, or too simple somehow, to be given the level of respect awarded other composers just isn't sufficient justification. As I said earlier, I am fairly sure you heard a poor rendition of an exquisite work. That is not Verdi's fault.

So often the defenders of some of the regie work being done (I am not someone who dismisses it summarily, there is some good) are the ones who find the score of a particular work so very boring, usually because they have heard it so frequently. What a reason to want see potential tripe on the stage! If you know you are going to be bored by the music, don't attend.

I do not care to use a name, anonymous is perfectly fine for me though it makes life confusing and irritating for some, I suppose.

Mark Berry said...

I certainly do not disparage melody. The operatic composer, indeed the composer, I love above all others is Mozart, who surely stands supreme in that respect, as in many others.

Moreover, I did not say that I was 'quite certain human beings never behaved or felt as they do in the story of "La Traviata".' Rather, I said that I knew no one who had and that, for a work presented as allied to Realism, it did not seem to be very realistic. This seems to me a problem, given that it is clearly not intended to be an allegory or symbolic. It is not necessarily a crippling difficulty, but it sits a little oddly with some of the claims being made for the drama.

Anonymous said...

PS - Works featuring courtesans and other women dying of tuberculosis may seem quaint to us now, but in their time these stories were scandalous. It was a deeply shameful topic, and it represented a gritty realism, without question. We have become difficult to impress in this regard.

curzon said...

Boulez and Birtwhistle often move me to tears too. Fortunately the pieces finish eventually!

Ricardo da Mata said...

Mr. Berry is completely right. This obsession for Verdi is just routine… Most of his operas are simple music for simple people. His Requiem is a good example: he tried to compose liturgical music, but didn’t succeed and wrote a bombastic and absurd opera… He was a great man but a vulgar and limited composer.