Spurred more by ethnographic fascination than by the pursuit of artistic uplift or even a desire for quality entertainment, I hatched a plan to brave that most Germanic of seasonal obligations: taking in Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus over Christmas. A friend from London was also in Berlin and when I floated the possibility of buying tickets for the batty hijinks on offer at the Deutsche Opera he sent this email shot across my bow:
“I’ve seen Fledermaus. Believe me, never having seen it is a far better place to be, and one you should not give up lightly. I even saw it, last January, at that other home of German culture, the Staatsoper in Vienna. It was like going to a Brexit rally. The guys wore felt. Everyone knew the words. Still more bafflingly, everyone knew the utterly banal music and, worse, laughed at the jokes. I would rather have been at Gilbert and Sullivan done by an am dram collective in Sussex. What I hope is coming across is that I am imploring you not to go to Fledermaus. You would be damaged by it, as I have been. You would lose faith in German, Germany, and probably human nature. It would wreck your Christmas.”
Thus dissuaded from a potentially disastrous course of action, I ventured with my friend and our respective families to the Comic Opera where, in my long experience with this most adventurous of musical institutions, felt is never worn. More often, at least on stage, the singers—or, as dictated by directorial fiat, sculpted supernumeraries—wear nothing at all.
If ever there were an opera that would court the Comic’s proclivities for debauched display it is Verdi’s La Traviata.
After launching the 1850s with the opera-of-yore triumphs of Rigoletto and Il trovatore set in a distant medievalized past, Verdi wanted to set a work in his own time and confront its excesses and exploitations, its new money and old prejudices. The heat of the industrial revolution raised the temperature of star-crossed love.
But the moralistic Austrian censors in control of northern Italian theaters didn’t go for the idea and bounced the story back a couple of centuries to the “France of Richelieu” so as to the take the teeth out of the work’s societal critique and gain some historical distance from its supposed depravity.
Traviata’s premiere in Venice in 1853 was a disaster, the audience at the theater of La Fenice visiting much of its displeasure on the singers. Many judged the famed soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli too old (38) and too fat (no historical tale of the tape survives) to convince in the role of Violetta. A year later at a different theatre in Venice, with a younger, slenderer soprano in the lead, the work was wildly successful. The opera swept across Western Europe, and even to America and Constantinople, where, in 1858, Salvini-Donatelli, now an ancient 43, took the lead one last time.
The opera’s popularity came both because, and in spite, of its transgressive morality, hardly blunted by displacing its plot to the bodice-ripping baroque. During the Traviata’s first London run in 1856, music-loving Queen Victoria and Prince Albert piously stayed away from Her Majesty’s Theatre, although that didn’t stop the royal pair from hearing—and even performing—the opera’s hit numbers at nearby Buckingham Palace.
Verdi had to wait another thirty years for his first essay in the present tense to be restored to its contemporary setting: Paris of the Industrial Age.
The opera’s landmark modernism is fitted to a tawdry tale of a high-priced prostitute, Violetta, and her lover Alfredo, a young man burning through the newly amassed family fortune through the tried-and-true means of gaming and whoring. Societal and familial forces bear down on the lovers in the form of Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, sung with stentorian resolve by Giuseppe Altomare, the only Italian in the international cast made up mostly of Eastern Europeans. Altomare’s powerful baritone, dark as if blackened by worry and coal-fired soot, was the very embodiment of genetic, capitalistic greed. Yet there was whiff of compassion in his voice, making his character’s cruelty all the more crushing. Where his distant predecessor in the role in Venice in 1853 was assailed by boos, Altomare was rewarded with surging applause spiked with bravos.
Going behind his son’s back, the manipulative father convinces Violetta to spurn her amour so as not to shackle him in sin and—more crucially—not to shame the nouveau riche Germont family. It’s a soap opera without the soap, the cleansing agent provided by Verdi’s soul-scouring music. The opera effervesces with one great tune after the next: arias buoyant and bathetic; rollicking, admonitory choruses; sumptuous party scenes; and, at last, dying strains that hymn immortal, even chaste devotion.
Violetta is wasted not just by the stifling mores of the time, but by consumption. (Spoiler alert) She dies in the last moments of the opera in the arms of the younger Germont, who has returned to her when, too late, he learns of the real reasons that she’d sent him packing. It had all been an act—that deception a fitting allegory of opera itself: there would be no tragedy, save untimely death, without Violetta’s own play-acting on stage.
Since the story centers around a high-class prostitute, veteran Comic Opera-goers surely anticipated—even expected—nudity, technological up-dates, tatoos and piercings. These came, but not in spades.
To start, no curtain hid the stage. A pair of PVC platform shoes with open toes and stiletto heels strutted their stuff at the lip of the orchestra pit. An iMac shone on a nearby desk.
The overture’s portentous four-note figures were separating by rests ten times longer than Verdi called for: it was an grandiose exercise in the stage wait. One feared major interventions into the score would follow, but, after these initial yawning gaps, masterfully managed by the young Latvian-born conductor, Ainars Rubikis, the music proceeded unmolested. The Comic Opera orchestra has long been an elite ensemble, rightly praised for its precision and expressive reach. Newly crowned director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Kirill Petrenko, was chief from 2002 to 2007, and his parabolic ascent could well be matched in the coming years by Rubikis, who took over as Music Director in 2018. Rubkis is a conductor of exacting energy, his great control encouraging, not inhibiting risk-taking by the singers.
Predictably, the modernity of Verdi’s gilded age of steel and railways was updated by stage director Nicola Raab to our own digital days and nights. During the overture Violetta tip-toed to her desktop, and video sex hookups seemed forthcoming. Instead, she checked her chest x-rays, projected on still larger screen at the back of the stage even while her real ones were encased in a late-model corset of black leather.
For the second act gaming scene a long table with a dozen iMacs appeared, gambling and sex, being two sides of the same coin. Two models disrobed and were creepily ogled, but not groped. The gambling men, arrayed like a Victorian board of directors transposed to Silicon Valley, set their top hats aside and took off their frock coats and cravats to reveal corsets and kindred cross-dressing accoutrements. There was little bang and no bite to these displays. The music rose above stilted poses and sexless stares.
Perhaps such distance from the real body served a dramatic purpose. That a tubercular woman can sing with such grace and endurance is a paradox that La Traviata addresses by gloriously ignoring it.
As Violetta, Natalya Pavlova was a mixture of pathos and pride, her lithe and accurate voice hearkening back to the bel canto of the nineteenth century, a time when the world was getting louder but still far less assaultive than the expected volume of street and theater. Pavlova’s graceful ornamentals—now flirtatious, now despairing—did not come off the assembly line of modern singing. Her famous aria at the end of the first Sempre libera was a tribute to the Verdian style and to musical freedom, even when set upon by dark forces and a bad cough.