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Straying from the path of virtue

Willy Decker's staging of Verdi's "La Traviata" starring Anna Netrebko has made waves at the Salzburg Festival. But has work's modernity been left in the wings? By Jürg Stenzl

Anyone who doesn't rejoice is an intellectual grouch and might as well go hide in the bushes of "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit" (an epic play by Karl Kraus, his reaction to World War One). Austrian television is reporting daily from the "Traviata front", and the local Salzburger Nachrichten is delivering the images: sexist, in "daring positions", Anna Netrebko's Violetta on a bright red settee, surrounded by a hundred male choristers. Next to her, the tenor Rolando Villazon beams the comforting news that he, as Alfredo, wants to make the audience members better people.

Anna Netrebko (Violetta Valery), Mitglieder der Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor in Verdi's "La Traviata", Salzburg 2005. © Klaus Lefebrve

While rehearsing his Giorgio Germont, the good Thomas Hamson was shrouded in a financial scandal in the midst of the pre-election fever in the Steiermark thanks to his aristocratic girlfriend Andrea Herberstein: at issue is her over-subsidised family garden. But this has no bearing on the showy Salzburg Festival, whose guests from the highest political and business circles show up in D and A class Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. For once, the metal gates were able to restrain the curious audience. With blankets and warm drinks, 1500 people sat in front of the large sponsoring screen on the Residenzplatz and enjoyed the experience. Violetta had hardly faded, the hurricane of exultation was unleashed.

In the "Traviata", Verdi's physical musical drama is said to enable a form of musical realism which shows the real person in his social and inner reality; his false and true feelings are both x-rayed and brought to light empathetically, "which naturally radiates musically". With these thoughts, composer Dieter Schnebel launched a debate 25 years ago which is still ongoing; his position is certainly not considered an accepted basis for "Traviata" interpretations. It has not even been decided whether this "chamber piece" is even suited to the large stage. The score was furthermore very much influenced by Verdi's situation in 1852; he too had lived for years with a lover who was reputed to have departed from the path of virtue. The music is full of abrupt dynamic contrasts, even in the middle of phrases (which are generally sung on the stage in full forte); the most contradictory effects seem to be united in the smallest space: dream and reality, the intimate and the social produce a twitching structure which defies the large gestures of the "grand opera" – but the performers make it that nonetheless.

Anna Netrebko (Violetta Valery) in Verdi's "La Traviata", Salzburg 2005. © Klaus Lefebrve

Anna Netrebko
is a stupendous singer, even if her Italian can hardly be understood. The voice is unusually homogeneous, it carries even in pianissimo and is never shrill, even in the upper range; only in the uppermost reaches does Netrebko have to push a little. It is precisely this homogeneity that makes her voice seem uniquely aesthetic, almost cool. By comparison, Rolando Villazon comes across as a woodsman; not doubting the effectiveness of his bright voice for a moment, he avoids the pianissimo range almost entirely. This pair is, regardless of what the lyrics express, young and healthy to the core. If they want to represent emotions or background information, they do so slowly and loudly while the conductor Carlo Rizzi acts as their loving and obedient servant, thus posing a few coordination challenges for the orchestra. Verdi's tempo and metronome rules lie dormant in Verdi's critical complete edition. Thus we experience a "Traviata" with moving and sentimentalised moments, a death scene in the usual slow motion and over the top caricatured carnival scenes. But the merciless abyss of this story, in which the victim – as well as the elegant gentlemen – struggles as helpless as a beetle on its back, is largely eliminated. Violetta und Alfredo are victorious.

Director Willy Decker deals aptly with the big stage, making good use of the sportiness both of his singers and of the superb Vienna State Opera Chorus, which appears even bulkier than it is thanks to extras. It is no coincidence that Decker once again relies on the abstract semicircle he used to stage Alban Berg's "Lulu" as a struggle between individuals and the collective. The glamorous Parisian society appears as a cynical, puppet-like mass. Here there is no room for morals or feigned morality. On stage a clock clearly and unambiguously counts out Violetta's hopeless struggle against time. The master of ceremonies knows time is ticking, only the players do not.

Rolando Villazon (Alfredo Germont), Anna Netrebko (Violetta Valery) in Verdi's "La Traviata", Salzburg 2005. © Klaus Lefebrve

But one player does rebel both against this well-ordered world and against the "Traviata" convention: Thomas Hampson's Giorgio Germont. He resists the view that Germont is not just an authoritarian patriarch, but also a loving father who can draw the right lessons from bitter experience. This staging certainly retains the futile but widely accepted cuts (for example in the cantabile of Violetta's big Scena ed Aria at the end of the first act). However, in the half of the cabaletta in the second act that is practically always axed ("No, non udrai rimproveri"), Germont emerges as someone who pits himself against harmonisation and sentimentality. But even Hampson, the highly sensitive and very precise free radical, cannot avoid the maelstrom of one-dimensional emotion. He too succumbs, and renders the pianissimo in "No, non udrai" as a full-blown mezzoforte. And his words "love forgives everything" seem – here it seems to be on purpose – to mask his fatherly authority.

Rolando Villazon (Alfredo Germont), Anna Netrebko (Violetta Valery) in Verdi's "La Traviata", Salzburg 2005. © Klaus Lefebrve

Originally "La Traviata" was to be called "Amor e morte". But pressure from censors caused the name to be changed and the action to be set "around 1700". Is this work, whose topical libretto is a "watershed in the history of the opera libretto" (Carl Dahlhaus), a surrogate for a passion that the audience wants as little as it does Tristan and Isolde's "love unto death"? While Christoph Marthaler has created a "Tristan" in Bayreuth that breaks with standard misinterpretations, earning him attacks from audiences and critics alike (see our feature "Hero to zero"), Salzburg has impressively fulfilled the expectations awakened by "La Traviata". In this respect Carlo Rizzi is the ideal conductor and Willy Decker the right director. Yet for all the triumph, could it not be that the real explosive power of this work, both socially and musically, its very modernity, is not left sitting in the wings?

The Salzburg Festival runs from July 25 - August 31, 2005.


This article originally appeared in the Berliner Zeitung on August 9, 2005.

Jürg Stenzl is music critic and professor of musicology at the University of Salzburg.

Translation: jab, nb - let's talk european