La Traviata, Paris Opera (Bastille) – review

The Paris Opera’s last brush with Verdi’s best-loved opera was an enterprising production by Christoph Marthaler in 2007 when Gerard Mortier was running the shop. Christine Schäfer’s Violetta made a striking impression as a frail Edith Piaf figure but the staging was essentially festival fare, not a repertoire vehicle that would earn its way through multiple revivals.

Mortier would have disdained the notion of return on investment. His successor, Nicolas Joel, has had a better grip on balance sheet aesthetics. This new Traviata, directed by film-maker Benoît Jacquot, has “revival friendly” stamped all over it but it still needs some serious rethinking.

The ideas are in place: traditional costumes (Christian Gasc) and an iconographic overlay sourced in Manet that has a certain appeal. His painting of Olympia is encased in Violetta’s vast bed, the tool of her trade, and she, too, has a black servant. Her party guests are serried ranks of sinister top-hatted men, moving stiffly in army formation like mourners at some grand funeral.

The inspiration unwinds in the second act. Rather than bring the curtain down for the shift from the house in the country to Flora’s party in Paris, Jacquot splits the stage. On the left, a large tree and on the right, a grand staircase in Flora’s house in shadow. When the lights come on for her soirée, you ache for the set to move centre stage rather than being marooned on the right, not least because the gypsy dance, a send-up performed by bearded Spanish “ladies” in a nod to Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, is a sight for sore eyes. Whatever happened to the Bastille’s so-called state-of-the-art machinery?

None of this will matter in the video, which perversely appears to be Jacquot’s primary concern, but he has failed to tame the Bastille’s vast stage.

In Act III, Diana Damrau’s Violetta still manages to make an impact from her tiny camp bed, an impressive house debut and long overdue. She may not spit out the Italian like a native but the voice is simply glorious, whether in cradled pianissimi or heroic outbursts. Her good-looking Alfredo, Francesco Demuro, has youthful passion and ringing tenor tone but steers clear of nuance. As Germont père, Ludovic Tézier shows off his superb baritone, now a much thicker sound but still miraculously wobble-free.

Daniel Oren’s conducting goes for exquisite detail but makes a rubato-ridden meal of every bar. Too fussy by half.

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