Style Instead of Glamour in Willy Decker's La Traviata 

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G. Verdi, La Traviata, Rizzi, Decker, Netrebko, Villazon, Hampson et al.
Few opera recordings – CD or DVD – have been more looked forward to (or more heavily promoted) than the famed 2003 Traviata from Salzburg with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. The marketing was carefully devised: first the complete opera, then the arias and highlights with a preview of the DVD, and finally, a few months ago, the DVD itself. The recording was fine but not quite as special as the event must have been for those who saw it live. DVD is the second best thing and manages sufficiently to convey that sense of occasion. This Traviata is a triumph of beauty and sensuality achieving what I suppose La Traviata was supposed to achieve in the first place (the music is an admittedly good place to start) and does for the early 21st century what Visconti did with his production half a century ago. This production does not so much update the opera but adjusts it to a modern aesthetic sensibility. Peopled with a beautiful cast – Netrebko, Villazón, Hampson, and impeccably clad chorus members – it lures us with promises of that beauty. Amid all this, Netrebko sings and act and does most of that promising. She succeeds wonderfully as Violetta, because we react to her viscerally.

Willy Decker's Traviata - NetrebkoAnd we react to her, because she is – foremost – stunningly beautiful, sexy and attractive. “We,” because classical music, more so still than other trades, is largely driven by the actions and opinions of men, “we” because those among us that are not heterosexual lustmongers who have channeled their urges into expressing through or appreciation of art are homosexual aesthetes similarly taken in by grace and good looks. “We,” because the kind of beauty generated by Netrebko in this particular setting is of a kind that transcends gender and sexuality. We all react to that which pleases the eye and imagination. And when the visual feeds into heart or groin, the ear will nod in timid agreement, little matter the fare it is served. In a sense, Netrebko is like a restaurant of great repute with the finest décor – where the food is good (never more) but all the right people meet. We take it as the greatest joy – and rightly so: let’s not feel guilty for being charmed by that which was designed by nature (and marketing people) to charm us. La Traviata with Netrebko is a sensual feast and deserves to be embraced as a whole.

Willy Decker's Traviata - Villazon / HampsonBut what makes this Traviata great, is the direction, the set, and the acting. True, Netrebko has a tendency to over-act and forget the singing while she is at it, busily wiggling her toes or attempting somersaults. Fortunately here she does not attempt such feats. Against the wide, white semicircle that encloses the stage (a dream in simple elegance of design and texture) her reds and blacks are as vivid as lip-stick smears on champagne glasses and tuxedos. Her torment, too, becomes believable – not via a stuffy setting from the olden days but because the direction takes the drama from the social surroundings into Violetta Valéry herself – juxtaposed by a father-figure representing Death or Fate which is, in her case, one and the same. And while Violetta is a well-established modern woman, aware of her charms and what she can make men do because of them, she succumbs to a deeper self, the inner child that wishes itself a past innocence with wide and begging eyes, that still wishes to believe in all those things that her cynical veneer has long cast to the four winds. It is this that makes her believable to us, because we believe in an inner naturalness that does not feel like a merely acted front like with, for example, the insufferably self-obsessed Angela Gheorghiu.

Willy Decker's Traviata - NetrebkoSpeaking of insufferably self-obsessed: Thomas Hampson is a very fine Germont and Villazón’s Alfredo meets Netrebko’s acting every step of the way: innocent, helplessly nasty, broken, and lovelorn. No actor could probably make his initial obsession seem real, but that part of the opera is quickly gotten past. What remains are two hours of opera as it should be: involving, beautiful, musical, a drama even the un-inclined are willing to follow, mainly because it casts out the dusty scraps that ‘tradition’ thoughtlessly passes down and instead successfully focuses on a very few, but the right essentials: beauty, emotion, and – of course – music. (Carlo Rizzi and the Vienna Philharmonic apply the necessary musical touches.) For those who don’t fall for the empty glitz of Zefirelli productions, Willy Decker's on this DVD is mandatory viewing and makes the CD alone not worth owning.

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