San Carlo/Abbado: La Traviata

Date: March 23, 2013
Conductor: Roberto Abbado
Production: Ferzan Özpetek
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

If Carmen Giannattasio is not already, or does not soon become, a global superstar, who would? Her courtesan was appropriately coy and collected in public, only willing to unleash her limitless emotional reserve, whether of joy or of despair, in situations alone. Her portrayal of Violetta’s charm in Act I, of emotional destruction in Act II, and of physical dissolution in Act III managed to impress, while the progression, from ebullience to death, was hauntingly real. As a singer, she phrased her lines and placed her notes carefully, as if caring for a new-born child, but never with the kind of flamboyance that tended to draw attention away from lyricism into mechanisms. Her flurry of notes in Sempre libera was an emancipation of fluidity and floral abundance. During her repeated curtain calls, she looked humbled and honestly overwhelmed by the audience’s outpouring of love and warmth.

Jose Bros had a rather forgettable evening as Alfredo. His voice has proven to be effective for bel canto, but, at least for this evening, lacked the sort of searing projection required to do Alfredo, never mind Verdi, justice. His Brindisi was fine, most probably because it had all the trappings of bel canto singing, but problems with his voice surfaced in his big Act II number. In the cavatina, he sounded weary and consumed, even when he was supposed to sing about boiling spirits. As he transitioned to the cabaletta, his voice was still rather lightweight, but, as if backup power renewed him temporarily, at least harbored some fiery sensation. All that collapsed when he attempted the final high C, which was so strained and flat that surprised even Bros himself. As he moved off stage, he looked visibly disturbed, with some in the audience gasping in horror and wondering whether the tenor could continue. He could and did, but sounded restrained, with a constricted top, for the rest of the way.

The dictatorial cruelty of pere Germont was captured through Simone Piazzola’s strong stage presence, except that when standing next to Bros, who is 48 years old, the 28-year-old Piazzola neither looked fatherly nor authoritative, even with heavy makeup. As a singer, Piazzola had projection and heft, but lacked the kind of vocal allure that stamped each unique voice. Giuseppina Bridelli, as Violetta’s friend, brimmed with an ebullient joy and stayed true to her character’s spirit for most of the evening.

Who really needs another Traviata with a primly decorated room laden with fluffy pillows in Act I, or fake greenery crawling over acid-washed village walls in Act II? This Traviata was exactly that, but while the staging looked hackneyed, it was mostly conducive to the flow of the drama. The exception to this boring realism occurred in Act III, when the audience was invited into the mind of Violetta. The stage had nothing but Violetta’s dimly-lit deathbed engulfed in pitch-black darkness. As she recalled the various happy moments of her life, actors would show up under keyed lights and re-enacted her thoughts, including episodes of bullfights and a couple in passionate embrace. That nifty stage feature provided visual activity, even as Violetta contemplated silently, with only a mellow orchestral sound in the background.

Abbado led the San Carlo Orchestra with briskness and purpose. The Chorus exploded with energy and fine vigor. In the first two acts, there seemed to be a problem with the Cultural Centre’s low-key lighting system as it flickered, though intermittently, with such schizophrenic urgency that it could very well represent something, perhaps the diseases that slowly ate away Violetta’s health. There was also a problem with offstage monitors, which caught a cellphone signal and eked out a few seconds of audible, though not ruinous, reverberations.

San Carlo Naples: La Traviata.

Act I in San Carlo Naples’ La Traviata. Copyright: San Carlo Naples.