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Phantom of an Opera

Theater an der Wien
05/27/2012 -  & May 30, June 2*, 5, 2012
Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata
Irina Lungu (Violetta Valéry), Karine Ohanyan (Flora Bervoix), Dshamilja Kaiser (Annina), Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo Germont), Gabriele Viviani (Giorgo Germont), Tomás Juhas (Gastone), Günter Haumer (Barone Douphol), Krzysztof Borysiewicz (Marchese D’Obigny), Günes Gürle (Dottore Grenvil), Nenad Marinkovic (Giuseppe), Stefan Dolinar (Domestico), Marcell Krokovay (Commissionario), Stephen Kennedy (Man), Claire Egan (Nun)
Arnold Schönberg Chor, Erwin Ortner (Chorus Master), Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Wien, Omer Meir Wellber (conductor)
Deborah Warner (director), Jeremy Herbert (stage), Rudy Sabounghi (costumes), Jean Kalman (lights), Kim Brandstrup (choreography), Anja Kietzmann (make-up)

(© Ruth Walz)

After Rigoletto in 2011, the Wiener Festwochen continued their Verdi-trilogy this year with La traviata. The cycle should culminate in the Verdi year 2013 with Il trovatore. The musical fate of all three operas had been placed into the hands of the inexperienced Barenboim-protégé Omer Meir Wellber.

Violetta had died in her hospital bed just before the first note of the opera. One could have gone home right away without missing much! While hospital personnel prepared Violetta’s body for the morgue and assiduously disinfected the hospital room, Omer Meir Wellber made the “Prelude” sound as cold and sterile as the set design looked.

The rest of the evening consisted of flashbacks from Violetta’s wanton life. The 1st Act opened with her “come-back-party”, as it was called in the program booklet. Had the 2005 Salzburg Traviata featured one red sofa on stage? Vienna had to top that with not one, but several white sofas. The party guests frolicked around the sofas and one wondered who would be the first to break their ankles. The famous “Brindisi” was a non-event, without applause, and Irina Lungu as Violetta struggled to balance vocal acrobatics with sofa acrobatics.

The 2nd Act had Alfredo and Violetta start off in their underwear, against Verdi’s explicit instructions: in costume da caccia (in hunting outfit). Maybe some people do hunt in their underwear. For a moment I wondered why Violetta was already in the arms of Alfredo, while he sang about how much he longed for her presence. But wasn’t Violetta already dead? This was surely her phantom! The only explanation for British stage director Deborah Warner’s self-righteous disregard for Verdi’s detailed stage instructions must be her obvious ignorance of the Italian language.

After the intermission, that was interestingly misplaced between the 1st and 2nd Scene of the 2nd Act, Flora’s salon turned into a billiard hall. Ms. Warner apparently did not know what to do with the chorus, who mostly stood idly around. The 3rd Act revisited the cold, sterile hospital stage we were familiar with from the Prelude. Warner had added two characters to the plot: “the man” and “the nun”. Both were busy disinfecting props while Violetta agonized on her deathbed. Without a spoken or sung word on stage, their CVs in the program booklet far outdid the biographies of the singers in length.

Given today’s obsession with authentic historical practice – don’t even try to play Bach with vibrato! – how do stage directors get a free ride overriding a composer’s explicit stage instructions? Isn’t it time to end the disrespect for a composer’s wishes?!

Deborah Warner claimed to have been “amused and frightened” when offered to stage La traviata for the Wiener Festwochen. She found this opera “mostly boring” and “had to become an archeologist” to uncover the secrets of the characters. Warner obviously didn’t dig deep enough. We saw an incredibly boring staging. It was a pity that the young and talented cast didn’t get any guidance in their character portrayals. Irina Lungu, however, did succeed in giving emotional depth to her role. Saimir Pirgu sang Alfredo with verve but little elegance. Gabriele Viviani’s Giorgio Germont projected well. He unfortunately looked more like Alfredo’s brother than father – a wig or white hairspray might have worked wonders.

Little the guidance that the cast got from the stage director, they got even less from the conductor. His tempi were either ridiculously fast or agonizingly slow. Wildly gesticulating, he had trouble keeping orchestra and stage together. Devoid of any feeling whatsoever for Verdi’s sublime music, he reduced La traviata to the banality of “ump-ta-ta”.

Wiebke Kuester



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