Monday, 21 July 2014

What the maid saw



La Traviata (Glyndebourne Festival, Mark Elder London Philharmonic Orchestra)

A few rolls of thunder threatened an otherwise perfect evening in Sussex. But the weather wouldn’t dare spoil music of this calibre. Venera Gimadieva took the role of Violetta to its very height. This is a singer and actress with a long, glittering career ahead of her. And we knew her back when. Similarly Alfredo (Michael Fabiano) was a lover-turned mad.   They made for a highly-believable coupling. Tassis Christoyannis singing Giorgio was superb too. The whole performance was wrung out to its very peak. In a sense, then this was an economical production. The orchestra, under Mark Elder, squeezed every drop of emotion, of drama out of each note. The Glyndebourne rehearsal period was in evidence here, as each note had been carefully considered, just as a jeweller re-seating precious gems in an ornate piece, to stupendous results. The singers got every note. Not a single gesture was uncalculated. Nothing happened by chance. In Act III, Alfredo was restrained by the excellent chorus, it seemed an entirely convincing fracas – but in reality, each move was thought through. Nobody during the 2 hours made a movement onstage which hadn’t been planned. 

There was absolutely no critique to make of the music-making or singing. This worked. The faults, few as they were, were the limitations of the fairly slight drama, and a slightly cluttered staging.
The role of Violetta’s maid, Annina in La Traviata is an interesting one. In the Glyndebourne production, she is positioned to see her mistress in several dark moments, from the start to the end. Is this the gaze of a poor worker on the idle rich? I couldn’t quite fathom but perhaps the cinema relay will allow me to clarify this.
A gauze screen obscured the stage, until a lit chandelier shone through, with Violetta in bed. This was thrilling. The party scene, with the infamous Brindisi means anyone has heard the first ten minutes. But Elder had recrafted it so you heard it anew. This is worth releasing on CD. The lights come up to show a party scene – with a smoking room replete with fug of smoke, which I found to great effect. Yet the first act’s staging was cluttered and it was apparent the cast and directors were unconvinced by it. The layers of fabric etc on the stage were perhaps being used to suggest layers in society. Yet they really just cluttered up things.
The second and third acts were staged with much less clutter, more simplicity and accordingly more coherence. The second act featured a view, out of focus, of some delicious al-fresco dining. It was as if the back of the stage fell away, and we were looking out to the not dissimilar scene on the lawn behind us, where champagne was cooled and tables were set. This was a clever piece of theatre. The Guardian review suggested the critique of the rich was removed to be politic with the audience but this was wrong: the party-goers on stage wore their evening wear- sumptuous and refined-and the Violetta and Alfredo were dining alfresco. The Guardian (plus ça change) was wrong: the audience was directly implicated.

Glyndebourne Production photograph

The final act was heart-rending. The stage was cut down, to give a bed in a tiny niche. The colours of dawn were delicately painted on the set, to wonderful effect.
The staging looked much better than the tired 1980s Royal Opera revival this year, and any criticsm might bear this in mind. The music and singing made this an exceptional evening.  This was special and the audience knew it. 

Overall: it would be a very long wait to hear a better Traviata.

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