On a long car journey I passed the time by trying to recall as many hummable melodies as I could from La Traviata. I lost count at 30 but that is perhaps 29 more than most operas. That is what makes it one of the greatest operas ever written, despite an implausible plot. Still, let's face it how many operas have plausible plots?
Familiarity can breed contempt but we need to remember that, even for an opera such as La Traviata, maybe half the audience are seeing it for the first time and do not even know how it ends. Peter Hall's bog standard, traditional production from Glyndebourne in 1987 is, I think, aimed at such an audience.
The main problem with the libretto of La Traviata is that Verdi and his librettist Piave could not spell out that Violetta is a courtesan. One wonders why Germont, Alfredo's father objects to his son's match with this glittering society lady. Peter Hall does give us a hint here. As the curtain rises on Violetta's salon we see a gentleman conducting an intimate examination and I am fairly sure he is not supposed to be a gynaecologist. Marie McLaughlin as Violetta certainly does glitter in this opening act although she is not so convincing in the final, deathbed scene.
In Act II, Alfredo's and Violetta's love nest is a little too suburban. Walter MacNeil's Alfredo is much too cosy as he relaxes on the sofa in front of the fire and sings of his love. Even worse, Brent Ellis as Germont looks younger than his supposed son, despite the moth-eaten beard. Germont has to persuade Violetta that she should give up Alfredo to save the reputation of Alfredo's sister, who Violetta has never met. This is always rather implausible but a good Germont can sometimes pull it off. Brent Ellis's Germont lacks the necessary gravitas and we are never convinced.
Verdi set his opera in the mid-eighteenth century but I have never seen a production set in that period. This Glyndebourne production, like most, sets it in the mid-nineteenth century, at about the time it was composed. I have seen versions set in Nazi Paris and in modern dress but I think Verdi may have been right all along. Perhaps the plot only really makes sense if set in the hypocritical, Liaisons Dangereuses milieu of the Parisian 1750s.
So, there is nothing really to recommend this DVD version of La Traviata. I would not go as far as a recent BBC Radio 3 reviewer who dismissed out of hand all versions of La Traviata on DVD before plumping for the 1980s version on CD with Ileana Cotrubas. I suggest there are at least three worthwhile filmed versions: those with Angela Ghiorghiu in 1994, Eteri Gvazava in 2000 and Stefania Bonfadelli in 2002.
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