Anachronism has become almost irresistible for opera directors. The violence of transposition—Rameau’s Platée in a Village bar, Così fan tutte in a postmodern suburb, Wagner’s Nibelungs in what might pass for a nineteenth-century sewage system, the Scottish Highlanders of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago diverted to the cracked cement playground of some abandoned inner-city neighborhood—seems the quickest and surest way to defamiliarize and thereby force new attention. Operas, it is thought, need to be regularly wrenched out of their inherited frame of reference to avoid taking on the fossilized predictability of a coronation or an alumni reunion. Only by cutting it loose from its historical moorings, as so many directors think, can an opera escape the curse of the museum or waxworks and form fresh and perhaps jarring associations in the perpetual present that is its real home. Such at least is the theory, generally decried by those who prefer their operas to be little changed or fear their being pitched into settings that undermine both the music and the motives of the composers and librettists.
Jonathan Miller has been as apt as anyone at such relocations, setting Rigoletto among the mafia dons of New York’s Little Italy and, perhaps most notoriously, moving The Mikado from Japan to the England of its original audience. These were radical changes but not of the kind that aims to subvert or demystify the works they transpose; in fact they did no fundamental violence to the works in question, revealing rather that Rigoletto was as if written to be at home among gangsters, and that The Mikado in a Victorian setting began to seem almost naturalistic in its observation of manners.
It was interesting, then, to learn that Miller’s new production of La Traviata at Glimmerglass this summer—his most recent treatment of a work he has staged a number of times over the past three decades—would resist any impulse toward time-shifting or drastic stylization. It would be set, as intended by Verdi and his librettists, in Paris around 1850. But any premonition that this might be nothing more than a meticulous exercise in historical reconstruction was set to rest when I saw the production in July. The almost astringent exactness of Miller’s mise-en-scène, in conjunction with Isabella Bywater’s production design, a rigorously pared-down version of period opulence, made it possible to see this most familiar of works almost as if for the first time.
La Traviata is an opera impossible to kill but correspondingly difficult to restore to the shock of a first encounter. The myth of which it is the most permanently gratifying statement has been too familiar for too long to be easily reimagined. As far back as 1938 the pop crooner Kenny Baker, playing a musically gifted short-order cook in the Technicolor revue The Goldwyn Follies, could shout out knowingly “Traviata! That’s a honey!… A lady what died of a broken heart and a slight cough!” before launching into a chorus of “Libiam” while the hamburgers sizzled. Whether as novel or play or opera or movie, there is not a gesture or a sentiment that does not come to us thick with accretions of parody and affectionate nostalgia—not a moment not haunted by Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo, Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and every soprano who has ever sung Violetta.
Perhaps it makes perfect sense, then, to make it new again by returning to the point of origin: that Paris of the mid-nineteenth century, questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi (that populous desert they call Paris), of which Verdi was a resident precisely in the years when this particular myth was taking shape with industrial speed. The courtesan Marie Duplessis, the original Lady of the Camellias, died of consumption early in 1847; four months later Alexandre Dumas fils spent a month turning his memories of their eleven-month affair into a novel. In a week’s time he turned it into a play that waited until 1852 to be staged only because of censorship problems. Verdi saw the play on opening night and a year later his operatic version (relocated to around 1700, also for censorship reasons) opened in Venice.
In the improvisational, fairly artless manner of the Dumas novel—its prematurely jaded sketches of Parisian night life, its disconcerting oscillation between self-aggrandizement masquerading as remorse and sexual boasting assuming the cloak of maudlin religiosity, the way its dialogue veers from pompous rhapsodizing to a bluntness that at moments feels directly transcribed—it is still possible to feel the rough edges of the milieu it was born from. Grand emotional gestures are enacted within an atmosphere of rampant disease, relentless money-grubbing, and obligatory macho swagger passing itself off as poetic sensibility.
Verdi set himself the task of creating a musical setting for scenes not too remote from his own world. To make opera of such scenes was to bring together spheres not obviously compatible: the world of observed reality and the alternate world compounded of dream, mythicized history, and erotic game-playing that was opera’s customary domain. It was almost like setting a daguerreotype to music: a jolting and exhilarating experiment. Miller, who has spoken of studying Nadar’s photographic portraits of roughly the same period, has gleaned from them something more than surface traits: not the dream of repose and luxury that painted portraits of the same era might offer, but a sense of rather tarnished characters fiercely holding their ground in a constantly challenging environment. Their Paris—the Paris of Camille and La Traviata —does not stop being a battleground even in moments of leisure.
The sharpness and stillness of a photograph is not what I have gotten from a good many Verdi productions, marked as they so often have been by a certain amount of murk and clutter and the stomping around of choruses who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Too often the effect has been of piling ornament on works that provide their own ornament. So it was more than refreshing to find at Glimmerglass a sense of La Traviata relieved of decoration or crowding, so that the moment-to-moment pressures and anxieties of the drama were not so much stressed as simply permitted to reveal themselves.
There was something like a surgical clarity in the way the mise-en-scène isolated the central figures within their decor, even at the most densely social moments. The immensity of the distances between people within the limited space of a drawing room was made palpable without any resort to melodramatic overstatement. The tension between the devouring demands of society—the party fever that erupts twice in the course of the opera—and the longing for privacy was enacted spatially with half-glimpsed party scenes intruding from back rooms in the first and third scenes. No movement in the world defined here, not even to step halfway across a room, could be truly free; invisible pressures molded every stance and angle of vision.
Even in their duets the separateness of the lovers was vividly apparent, as if the whole opera were circling around the act that isn’t there, the rural idyll of Violetta and Alfredo that Verdi was so careful to suggest only briefly. One was made constantly aware of the austerity of the opera’s narrative: so much is elided, so much weight falls on moments of interruption, as when Alfredo’s voice echoes from the street as he goes home. To give such moments their maximum power (given the abilities of the cast and orchestra at Glimmerglass), all that was required was to create an aura of silence and emptiness around the music.
If the direction was austere it was an austerity just this side of unaffected naturalness. Miller has spoken of his desire to clear away the excesses of “acting”—that is, “doing things which no one does in real life at all”—in favor of what he refers to as “sub-intentional movements…the movements which we all do without thinking about it.” Once performers find a way to get back to such natural behavior, he writes, “we see these kinetic melodies, the correlation between physical, bodily muscular limb movements and melody. The whole thing becomes very realistic on the stage when that happens.”
Turning operatic set pieces into scenes of ordinary social interaction intensifies rather than diminishes their effect. When Violetta leaned back on a sofa after Flora’s guests took their leave in the first act, visibly relishing her solitude and the relief of dropping her social mask, her relaxation within her private space relieved her scena and aria of any hint of the declamatory or theatrical: it was more like a diary entry that happened to be sung. Mary Dunleavy was a strong Violetta—as any Violetta must be, since her grasp of things is wider and deeper than any other character’s in the opera—and in this scene she was able to suggest thoughts not so much uttered as welling up involuntarily. Characters sang often in seated position, assumed postures of ease or attempted ease, behaved in short as if this were a day unfolding. When histrionic modes came into play it was because—as during the quarrel at Flora’s—rituals of aggression were being performed with all the actorly gusto of aggrieved vanity.
In a way that is perhaps possible in a theater of the intimate dimensions of Glimmerglass—a space in which orchestra and singers alike are so near as to permit an almost dreamlike immersion in the proceedings—a novelistic density pervaded the performance. It was interesting to learn afterward that Miller had been thinking about a novel, Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale, during his preparations. Alfredo, like Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, is a provincial in Paris, never fully at ease with its codes and expectations, and appealing to Violetta precisely because he sparks the nostalgia for lost innocence and well-being still apparent in their deathbed duet about leaving Paris. Ryan MacPherson as Alfredo succeeded well at conveying a sense of him as an ambitious country youth quietly pleased with himself for gaining the love of the famous courtesan, playing the man of the world yet half-suspecting how ill-suited he is for the role.
His fragile vanity did indeed seem consonant with that in Flaubert’s book when Frédéric, making his first inroads into Parisian society, catches a glimpse of himself in a hall mirror: “His face offered itself up to him in the mirror. He found himself handsome; and stayed a moment to look at himself.” In this light the imposingly sung performance by Malcolm MacKenzie as his father deepened one’s sense of Alfredo as struggling to live up to a tradition of rural patriarchy and not quite making it.
Beyond these questions of characterization, I could easily believe that Miller was seeking theatrical analogues for the mesmerizing surface that Flaubert invented for his novel, in which past scenes are relived with preternatural clarity, with all superfluous details burned away so that only the necessary gestures and objects remain visible: a prostitute coughing up blood in the midst of a party and then discreetly dropping her handkerchief under the table, or the love of Frédéric’s youth revealing her gray hair by firelight.
The production’s Flaubertian edge effectively removed any hint of Romanticism from the last act. Violetta’s death was allowed to unfold not coldly but with a clear acknowledgment of clinical realities. The desperation and inadequacy of the responses of Alfredo and his father in the face of those last moments caught the true harshness of the scene, preparing the way for the incomparably savage abruptness of the opera’s ending.
September 24, 2009