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Ensemble

As Active As Ever

GIUSEPPE PENNISI experiences
Zeffirelli's latest 'La traviata'

 

Franco Zeffirelli is alive and well in his villas near Rome and near Naples. He is also at the center of the musical scene -- in Italy and abroad. He is approaching the age of ninety. His motto is 'if I rest, I rust'. Thus, the maestro is as active as ever. The Rome's Teatro dell'Opera is closing its 2009 season with a 'new' -- so to say -- production of his Traviata -- his 8½th, according to my computation because his Traviata shown in Rome in April 2007 was his 8th and this version has only a few minor changes, mostly the Act II choreography. The Treatro dell'Opera will open its 2010 season with Zeffirelli's new Falstaff -- most likely a remake of his much acclaimed 1964 production. Also he signs all the productions of this Summer Arena di Verona Festival and has a couple of stage plays under preparation.

He was a member of the Italian Parliament, but, believe me, he is not a smooth politician. Before the current Traviata -- on stage until the 31 December 2009 gala -- he held a press conference where he announced the firing of the protagonist -- Daniela Dessì, whose début in the role was much awaited -- because in his opinion, she was too old to be Violetta. In the same conference, he attacked 'modern' stage directing, updating of librettos to our age and time and opera houses' management in general. A Zeffirelli production -- we know -- is larger than life: sumptuous, carefully detailed, with lavish sets and plenty of extras, but vary faithful to the libretto. In Italy, and elsewhere, there are two parties: Zeffirelli's fans -- who love the wild wide world of opera as it has been for a couple of centuries -- and Zeffirelli's foes -- who think that opera should urgently and badly be updated so as not to lose its audience and also to attract younger audience members. On the basis of this production of Traviata, I dealt with these issues in La Scena Musicale (scena.org) where interested readers can see my views.

In this review, I focus on the musical aspects because, in Zeffirelli's opinion, the conductor, the orchestra, the soloists and the chorus must be in line with the director's reading of both the text and the score. Traviata is the last of the three operas called Verdi's 'popular trilogy'. Musically, the most debated topic can be called 'the high E flat' question -- viz: if at the end of Act I, the soprano should conclude the aria Sempre Libera with a 'high E flat'. This is a real virtuoso note -- at which the audience breaks into an enthusiastic applause. Zeffirelli's 8½th Traviata does not include 'the high E flat', not because the singers he selects cannot reach such a height but because Verdi never wrote such a note in the score. The 'high E flat' was added by sopranos who wanted to show off their bravura; gradually, it became part of the tradition.

Myrtò Papatanasiu during the overture to 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini
Myrtò Papatanasiu during the overture to 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini

On 18 December 2009, the opening night of the production, there was no 'high E flat'. In the Rome theatre, Zeffirelli's foes were immediately ready to point out that to please the director, second-choice singers had been hired. I wish they would read any critical edition of the score before taking the 'high E flat' as a battle flag.

Myrtò Papatanasiu, Antonio Gandìa and the chorus in the 'Traviata' toasting scene. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini
Myrtò Papatanasiu, Antonio Gandìa and the chorus in the 'Traviata' toasting scene. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini

Let us move on to Gianluigi Gelmetti's conducting. He worked closely with Zeffirelli. Under his baton, the music of Traviata spreads like a veil of sorrow over the whole story and has the power to evoke the atmosphere. This is very much in line with Zeffirelli's staging of Traviata as a flashback: during the introductory overture, we see Violetta dying. The plot is presented through her memory whilst she is passing away. Gelmetti gives the right tint to such a reading of both the text and the score: the few strongly-drawn scenes, like the Act I drinking scene and Flora's party in Act II, are musically pale beside the broadly developed lyric scenes. The accent is on the transmutation of spiritual happenings and emotions into music, on melody, on the anticipation of Verdi's future development. When Verdi composed Traviata, he was working towards new ways to add intensity to melodrama, even if conventional devices still recur in the rhythms and the accompanying passages. Gelmetti's musical direction interprets this moment of transition very well. Violetta's brilliant coloratura in Sempre Libera is not florid ornamentation but the expression of her frivolous and superficial way of living (before meeting Alfredo); there is no coloratura in the rest of the opera -- even though there would be many an opportunity (and Donizetti would have jumped on them all). Thus, Ms Myrtò Papatanasiu, the protagonist, is right in not adding the 'high E flat' and delivering the aria with melancholy for a world she had just decided to leave. Gelmetti keeps the orchestra very much in the background while the bel canto vocal lines carry the melody through (as in Bellini's writing); alone, it serves to define the character and the deeper content of the music.

The Concertato at the end of Act II of 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini
The Concertato at the end of Act II of 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini

Alfredo is more vigorously defined; his love song (Di quell'amor un palpito) recurs as a leitmotiv and dies away in a sorrowful violin solo at Violetta's death. The other leitmotiv is Violetta's Act II Amani, Alfredo: a fervent tune in both Act I and Act III preludes. Gelmetti and Papatanasiu did not have an equally good Alfredo: Antonio Gandìa's singing is rather monotonous, whilst an agile, velvet voice is needed. He was the weak spot of the evening. All the others were up to a good standard.

Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta, dying in Act III of 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini
Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta, dying in Act III of 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini

A final comment: the nine scheduled performances were sold out in September, and two special previews were organized by charities because of the great demand for tickets. Box office is a good indicator of opera goers' likes and dislikes. At the curtain calls on 18 December 2009, Zeffirelli's fans overturned Zeffirelli's foes.

Copyright © 22 December 2009 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy

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GIUSEPPE VERDI

LA TRAVIATA

ROME

ITALY

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Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller