I have purchased the DVD of La Traviata from last summer’s Salzburg festival with Rolando Villazon, Anna Netrebko and Thomas Hampson in the starring roles. I had already bought the highlights CD called Violetta and played it several times. It did not prepare me for the film.
This is a modern concept production with the stark abstract quality that is so often the case in contemporary European, especially German, productions. On the right is a large clock face with no numbers that tells us that time is passing, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. There is also a death / father time figure who stands about the stage and seems to be telling Violetta that her time is running out. She pleads with him for more time, but he refuses.
I watched all the extras that come with this DVD, and they are especially good. Villazon explains his concept of Alfredo, that he is very young, that he is experiencing a great love for the first time, that a lover is leaving him for the first time, to explain his crudeness and lack of sophistication.
Everyone enters and leaves the stage by a door on the left, except when the chorus peers in over the top of the set.
Anna explains that in this concept production Violetta is a prostitute, since in our day there is no such thing as a courtesan. She is not sick with a disease, but it is her soul that is sick and dies.
This explanation explains nothing. The abstract production reduces the action to its essential parts, attraction, passion, love, breakup, death. It answers my requirement that the production explain the action. Nothing is left but love and death.
Into this abstraction is placed the person of Anna Netrebko. The extras explain that she requires very little explanation, and simply expresses intuitively whatever is asked of her. She explains that she works hard when she is rehearsing but does not think about the work when she is at home. She is young and rich and thinks about her shoes. In fact, she tries to avoid thinking and attempts to deal with emotions directly.
The music is wonderful. For some reason Verdi sounds crisp and modern, as though he meant this abstraction all along. The singing is fabulous. All three artists are at the top of their game and combine to make a truly memorable La Traviata. I have never loved this music so much. Suddenly I understand why people love this opera.
The context is modern, so the action is made plain. During Alfredo’s aria in the second act we are treated to a love romp where they kiss (at one point she kisses him on the navel) and play hide and seek. Little is left to the imagination. The father actually hits his son for being such a fool. In his anger Alfredo brutalizes Violetta.
Still I have explained nothing. The emotion of the action is reflected in her face. If she is happy, we are happy. If she is angry, we are angry. If she is in love, we are in love, too. If she is afraid of death, so are we. If she is feeling the moment of ecstasy just before death, we are ecstatic. We have felt every emotion as deeply as we can feel it.