La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia

After a series of directional disasters throughout the Balkans, it was
refreshing to find a production which was neither ridiculous, irrelevant or
doggedly self-serving. Director Lutz Hochstraate and set designer Rudolf
Rischer combined to make a credible interpretation of this overly familiar
opera which has certainly suffered more than its fair share of production
atrocities. Huge floor to ceiling doors worked well to delineate different
scenes and provide multiple entry points for soloists and chorus. Set
properties were minimal and uncluttered. The use of enormous silhouettes/shadow
figures on a rear scrim to represent the passing Carnival in Act III was
particularly effective.

Musically things were more or less in competent hands although the small-ish
pit presented certain problems, especially in the reduced string section which
numbered only 16 first and second violins. Other than the opening to
Aida, it is hard to think of another Verdi opera where the high
strings are so exposed as in the Preludio (and later introduction to
Act III) in La Traviata. The ppp markings requiring the
barest whisper of a melodic line makes these measures acoustically easier in
smaller houses, but the most minute flaws are cruelly apparent, and in the
Slovenian National Theatre uneven string tone and intonation imprecision were
evident at the outset. Czech conductor and Jana?ek specialist Jaroslav Kyslink
maintained a brisk pace throughout, although a little more attention to
fermate, rubati and a wider breadth of tempi would have been
preferable. He certainly kept the reduced Verdian orchestra from overpowering
the singers, but in such a small house (530 seats) one would have expected
better projection from the stage.

The large corowas vocally impressive although the Italian
diction should have been clearer. This could be due to the fact that many
operas in Ljubljana (and all buffo repertoire) are still sung in
Slovenian. Although the ensemble singing was strong, the comprimario roles were
for the most part disappointing. Gastone (Rusmir Redûi?); Douphol (Anton
Habjan); the Marchese (Juan Vasle) and Giuseppe (Edvard Strah) sang adequately
but without distinction. The Flora of Galja Gor?eva had reasonable stage
presence but very poor diction. Annina was more sympathetically sung and acted
by Galja Gor?eva. The most impressive of the smaller roles was the Dr. Grenvil
of young Slovenian bass-baritone Rok Bav?ar who in the limited amount he has
to sing, displayed a warm timbre and commendable phrasing. He may have been
better cast as PËre Germont. This role was interpreted by Ivan Andres Arnöek
who was regrettably dramatically and vocally unconvincing – perhaps too
affable for one of the most hypocritical if not despicable characters Francesco
Piave adapted from Dumas’ roman. His physical appearance, despite a
shock of grey hair, suggested more Alfredo’s older brother and the addition
of a walking stick was more a hindrance than a dramatic asset as he forgot to
use it most of the time. Mr Arnöek’s voice was not disagreeable but lacked
depth and resonance and his dramatic denunciation of Alfredo at the beginning
of the Act II Sc. ii finale (Di sprezzo degno) had no gravitas or
impact at all.

Alfredo was performed by Alijaû Farasin. While he sang the notes (except
the Act II O mio rimorso cabaletta) there was something rather bland
about his performance. Dei miei bollenti spiriti was about as boiling
as a plate of cold bucatini. This was no passionate young man hopelessly in
love with a seductive courtesan, but a rather pedestrian provincial out of his
emotional depth. A slightly nasal timbre marred the ideal lyricism of the role,
although he was more effective expressing rage in Act II Sc. ii Ah,
comprendo! basta, basta.
One certainly missed the impassioned exuberance
of Rolando VillazÛn, Jonas Kaufmann or Joseph Calleja.

The greatest interest of the evening was the unscheduled Violetta of Russian
soprano Natalia Ushakova. This is a singer who is currently singing everything
from the Kˆnigin der Nacht and Manon Lescaut to SalomÈ. It is hard
to define exactly what kind of soprano she is, which in a sense is helpful in
an opera which requires at least three different kinds of voices for the lead
role. Although enjoying frequent collaboration with Pl·cido Domingo and
apparent success at La Scala with Mimi, Covent Garden with Amelia (Simon
and Violetta in Vienna, from this performance it is hard to
understand how she has achieved such accolades. With such great interpreters of
the role as Ileana Cotruba?, Teresa Stratas, Angela Gheorghiu, Natalie Dessay
and RenÈe Fleming still in recent memory, Violetta is a role which should not
be attempted lightly. Apart from a rather irritating habit of squinting like a
Smiley icon when taking high notes, Madame Ushakova’s voice is definitely
uneven. While the F minor semiquavers at the beginning of Ah, fors’Ë
in Act I were crisply detached as marked, the A natural at the end of
addio del passato in Act III perfectly pitched without any annoying
vibrato and her mezzavoce in dite alla giovine in Act II Sc.i
the most moving singing of the evening, there were numerous intonation problems
and awkward portamenti throughout her performance. Sheseemed
to have no trill technique at all, which was especially noticeable on the
Db, Ab and F’s on Ora son forte in the closing
duet with Alfredo. The fioratura in the Act I Sempre
lacked ease and elegance (definitely no Joan Sutherland) especially
in the unaccompanied semiquaver ornamentation on ‘ah’ preceding
the tempo change to allegro on follie, follie. Similarly, the
fioratura on gioir was rushed and poorly defined. The top
Db immediately before the allegro brillante change was
dangerously unfocussed. It is hard to imagine this soprano coping with the high
F’s in Der Hˆlle Rache. Although having formidable projection, the
wrenching Amami, Alfredo, quant’io t’amo phrase in Act II
Sc.iwas surprisinglylacking in vocal power and dramatic
conviction. This Violetta’s stage presence was also a long way from that of
the Alexandre Dumas’ seductive dame aux camÈlias. More cheerful
babushka than sophisticated femme fatale, there was a contadina
quality about her persona which might have appealed to the provincial in
Alfredo but certainly not the worldly Baron Douphol. All in all, a rather mixed
bag from Madame Ushakova. The enthusiastic audience gave the performance a very
warm reception and a number of curtain calls. But Ljubljana is still a long way
from La Scala.

Jonathan Sutherland

Cast and production information:

La Traviata Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana
5th December 2014 Conductor: Jaroslav Kyzlink, Director: Lutz
Hochstraate, Set design: Rudolf Rischer, Costume Design: Bettina Richter,
Choreography: Ivo Kosi Violetta Valery: Natalia Ushakova, Flora: Galja
Gor?eva, Annina: Dunja Spruk, Alfrredo Germont: Alijaû Farasin, George
Germont: Ivan Andres Arnöek, Gaston: Rusmir Redûi?, Baron Douphol: Anton
Habjan, Marchese d’Obigny: Juan Vasle, Dr. Grenvil: Rok Bav?ar, Giuseppe:
Edvard Strah

image_description=A scene from Act I of La Traviata [Photo by Darja ätravs Tisu courtesy of Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana]
product_title=La Traviata in Ljubljana Slovenia
product_by=A review by Jonathan Sutherland
product_id=Above: A scene from Act I of La Traviata [Photo by Darja ätravs Tisu courtesy of Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana]