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With a whopping 4,162 performances in the 2017-2018 season alone, Verdi’s La Traviata has the honour of being the most performed opera in the world this year again, a distinction that it easily maintains year after year. With such familiarity, it is of course tempting for directors to attempt to outdo each other with ever more unconventional stagings; from Nicholas Muni’s 1991 New York City Opera transposition of the action to contemporary Manhattan, to Peter Mussbach’s abstract and minimalist sets at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2003.
Lorenzo Amato’s new production at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is therefore all the more remarkable for the extent of its use of traditionalism to move his audience. The costumes clearly connote nineteenth-century Paris, and the sets were entirely hand painted, in what amounted to a wholesale rejection of modern trends toward the use of video projections. The Act II ballet numbers were interpreted in a literal yet exciting manner, masterfully executed by the dancers of the Ballet of the Teatro di San Carlo.
Precious few aspects of the staging presence call attention to Amato’s directorial persona. During the Act I prelude the curtain rose to show a vision of Violetta’s death, her corpse surrounded by bourgeois Parisian males in black holding umbrellas, in an allusion to paintings by Caillebotte—an effect also used by Giorgio Gallione in last year’s production at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. The umbrellas highlighted the incessant rain which fell in the background, a nearly constant presence in the opera. Amato also placed looming images of the Teatro di San Carlo’s royal box and backstage scaffolding behind the stage action. In the end, these interpretive flourishes felt more like intrusions than anything else, their significance remaining obscure.
The most powerful aspect of the new San Carlo production is the extremely high quality of singing by the central trio of characters: Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio. The Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was an extraordinary Violetta, with a stunning pianissimo dynamic that set up a contrast to her impeccably rendered flashes of coloratura. Her singing of the passage “Ah! dite alla giovine sì bella e pura” in her Act II duo with Giorgio was both delicate and intense. Despite her poor articulation of the Italian text, the beauty of her voice was unfailing, and when the staging required her to sing while lying on her back, the sound was equally attractive.
Francesco Demuro was a memorable Alfredo, projecting more subtleties than one is accustomed to hearing in this role. His light and agile tenor was effortless in the high register. The clarity of his delivery of the line “io vivo quasi in ciel” in the aria “Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!” at the opening of Act II was one of the evening’s high points. He was also the most convincing actor of this cast, poignantly conveying Alfredo’s bitterness toward Violetta in Flora’s party scene in Act II and his confrontations with his father Germont.
The role of Giorgio Germont was sung by baritone Leo Nucci, who at 76 years old was acclaimed as the star of the show. His Act II aria “Di Provenza il mar” was so powerfully sung that Nucci was obliged to step out of character to acknowledge the thunderous ovations from the Neapolitan audience.
Jordi Bernàcer led a moving interpretation from the orchestra pit, favouring expressive rubato over absolute precision. Transitions between numbers were often played with a flexible accelerando, and at numerous points in the score (for example in the Act III prelude), Bernàcer encouraged the violinists of the Orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo to play with sliding portamenti more typical of early twentieth century performance practice than of today’s playing style.
Gustav Mahler aptly stated, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Amato’s new Traviata demonstrates that the vitality of a conservative approach to operatic staging is only made possible by keeping the “fire” of exceptional singing at the heart of the production.