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Beppe de Tomasi's La Traviata for the Fujiwara Opera

Orchard Hall, Bunkamura
01/15/1999 -  and 16*, 17 January 1999
Giuseppe Verdi : La Traviata
Masako Deguchi (Violetta), Taro Ichihara (Alfredo), Giorgio Cebrian (Germont), Ryoko Hosomi (Flora), Seiji Ishikawa (Gaston), Masumi Kubota (Duphol), Yasushi Nakamura (D'Obigny), Kazuhiro Yatabe (Grenville), Reiko Takanami (Annina) Naoto Watanabe (Giuseppe), Toshihiro Tachibana (messenger), Hakuyo Inoue (servant)
The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Fujiwara Opera Chorus Group, Renato Palumbo (conductor), Beppe de Tomasi (stage director), Ferruccio Villagrossi (set designer), Pier Luciano Cavallotti (costume designer), Yasuo Okuhata (lighting designer). Presented by the Japan Opera Foundation.

We know that Violetta is going to die, but as the opera begins we put it to the back of our minds. We have come to hear a living Violetta not a dead one. We may even cherish a secret hope that she won't die, that the final act will somehow find us in a different opera or with a different conclusion - just as we ourselves hope to somehow avoid death.

However in the Fujiwara Opera production, Beppe de Tomasi, the craggy veteran Milanese director, was intent on reminding the audience at every turn that Violetta was doomed. He revealed her tombstone during the overture, during the prelude to Act 3 (after a priest had administered the last rites over her body!) and, most notably, during 'Addio del passato . .' her aria at the beginning of the last act.

The de Tomasi version of Violetta's end was a transfiguration rather than a death from medical causes. As she sang her final lines 'Cessarono gli spasmi . . .' [The pain has gone . . .'] the house lights went up and curtains opened to reveal a mirror covering the back of the set reflecting (albeit murkily) the audience. The last words belonged to Violetta. Alfredo, his father, Annina and the doctor lined up, two on each side and walked mechanically backwards into the wings, their participation in the death denied and their final lines deleted. What was the director's intention? That the audience should leave as dry-eyed and uninvolved as they had entered? If so, he succeeded.

Some other unusual features of the production: the overture was programmed with a tableau for each musical section, though it was not always clear what was being referred to. In Act One, Violetta's 'protector', Baron Duphol, slapped her vigorously before leaving the party. Alfredo serenaded Violetta standing upstage facing off (instead of under her balcony), and then ran back straight into her arms before the curtain fell, rather obviating her invitation to him for the next day.

The set itself was conventional with First (?) Empire malachite green and gold columns and red, green and gold drapes, though much use was made of transparent surfaces, including a scrim in place of the curtain. Rather curiously the first part of Act Two, set in the countryside, had two different backcloths, one of which reappeared in the final act, set in Violetta's house in Paris. A mistake backstage? Costumes were generic 19th century.

The Fujiwara Opera presents La Traviata in January each year with different singers. Past Violettas have included Angela Gheorghiu, June Anderson, Andrea Rost and Chen Sue, with Marco Berti, Roberto Aronica, Salvatore Fisichella and Shigehiro Sano as Alfredo. This year it was the turn of Victoria Loukianetz and Marcelo Alvarez on the 15th and 17th, with Masako Deguchi and Taro Ichihara on the 16th.

Deguchi (Violetta) has a small but exquisite, well-focussed, lyric soprano voice. She has the ability to produce some wonderful pianissimi, by no means out of character with the frail nature of the heroine, but without a great range of expression or colouring. She has adequate, but not particularly clear, diction. She coped well in Act One, her lower register secure and beautiful, though she lunged awkwardly at the higher notes. Her second act was rather more successful, despite a lapse of memory at one point, though without the variation in dynamics to make the action really come alive. Much of Act Three was also delivered in the same low-key manner until 'Gran Dio. .' when she finally directed a little stronger emotion towards the audience. Deguchi is not a natural actress and her abrupt switching from healthy to sick mode (coughing by numbers?) needs to be refined. She also needs to learn to move more gracefully on stage.

Ichihara (Alfredo) was not in his best voice and didn't seem particularly at ease in this production. He is a fine musician, a singer who really feels the pulse of the music. but 'De' miei bollenti spiriti' at the beginning of Act Two was delivered listlessly. There seemed to be little personal electricity between the lovers, and the characteristic vitality expected from his singing was not apparent until his scenes with Germont senior. Giorgio Cebrian (the first cast Germont replacing Yasuo Horiuchi) had a fine sonorous voice and acted well, but failed to deliver any of the actual words.

With the right musical direction this might still have been a moving performance, but unfortunately the conductor was anything but sympathetic to what his singers were trying to do, The orchestra was loud and frequently drowned the singers and the conducting was rhythmically dull. Deguchi in particular needed, and deserved, much more sensitive support from the pit.

The hero and heroine sported mousy brown wigs and thick brown makeup of surpassing ugliness. It has been a tradition in the Japanese theatre that those appearing as Europeans should be made up and costumed not only to appear as western as possible, but also in denial of every possible physical characteristic that could be thought of as Japanese, including black hair. The results of this kind of approach are anything but pretty!

Simon Holledge



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