A new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata premiered on December 19th at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater in Berlin, the company’s temporary home during the renovation of the historical house Unter den Linden.
Conductor Daniel Barenboim had been seriously ill, and could not take part in the rehearsals: he took the baton only at the final dress. This may explain the odd choice of tempi, at moments exceedingly slow as in Giorgio Germont’s aria Di Provenza, and with a somewhat heavy hand.
With the help of dramaturgs Hans-Joachim Ruckhäberle and Katharina Winkler, director Dieter Dorn staged the action in a dim, almost setless space (designed by Joanna Piestrzyńska), with Violetta on stage for almost the whole performance, wearing a black petticoat. A huge skull on the background was composed of the bodies of six dancers in white costumes. When the dancers changed position, they stood looking at Violetta and Alfredo as silent testimonies of death.
The performance ran for little more than two hours without intermissions, and, as there were no scene changes, the director conceived a continuing action in order to connect the acts with one another: Violetta and Alfredo making love on a mattress lying on stage between the first and the second act, and, between the third and the fourth, Annina picking up the money that Alfredo had thrown to Violetta (in fact, he tried to stuff them between Violetta’s legs).
The stage opened on the dying Violetta dreaming of her joyful past, but when the guests streamed inside her home in colorful clothes (by costume designer Moidele Bickel), Doctor Grenvil also came in, remaining apart from the others, carrying his medical bag.
Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva did her best to comply with all production demands, while also trying to master the top range: she was quite successful, in spite of a few uncovered high notes. At her side, Moroccan tenor Abdellah Lasri as Alfredo was not up to the role: the singer has a nicely colored voice, but very poor technique, a somewhat throaty emission, and frequent problems with intonation.
Italian baritone Simone Piazzola was an outstanding Giorgio Germont, with a solid technique, a wide palette of colors in his voice, in spite of the conductor’s slow tempi, which certainly didn’t help him.
Among the other singers, bass Jan Martiník as Doctor Grenvil deserves a mention: his dark voice supported by long breaths certainly deserves to be heard again, in more extended roles.
In the end, the musical part was successful, with applause especially directed to Piazzola and Yoncheva, while the production team aroused mixed reactions, with a wide section of the audience booing.
An average production by a high ranking German opera company, then? Not at all, because the great expectation in this production premiere, at least for many of the people who had come from abroad to see it, lay in the casting of Annina. Scheduled for opening night was Luisa Mandelli, a very popular and familiar character for opera lovers in Milan. In her youth, the now 93 year old lady had been a company member at La Scala, co-starring in numerous productions, among which La traviata with Maria Callas as Violetta in 1955 (she is also featured in a historical EMI life recording, with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini).
During his years as Maestro Scaligero, Daniel Barenboim met Mandelli and invited her to step on stage once more for a performance of La traviata in Berlin. Finally, this was arranged exactly for December 19th. Mandelli, who now lives at the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti ‘Giuseppe Verdi’, started preparing months ago. She travelled to Berlin as arranged ten days before opening night, but couldn’t see the Maestro, who was ill. Because of illness, Barenboim hadn’t been able to see the production, and didn’t realize that it would have been impossible for Mandelli, though in very good physical shape, but indeed quite old, to follow the stage directions requested.
So, on the first day she met with members of the production team and was stood down. She had to travel back, to the indignation of her Milanese fans. It is not clear whether Barenboim had had the opportunity to inform Dorn and his assistants of the extraordinary casting, and most likely there were no bad intentions behind the unhappy end of the enterprise: certainly, though, the management’s decision to announce Mandelli’s cancellation as due to illness sounded quite awkward, as many members of the audience came from Milan that night: they had had the opportunity to talk with her, and see that she was quite healthy.