2005 Salzburg production restores to the opera what Verdi wanted it to have: shock value. Dress rehearsal pictures here; lots of opening night photos here. Decker's production uses simple visual language for a straightforward, if not literalistic, reading of the Verdi/Piave drama, relentlessly emphasizing the voyeuristic, greedy nature of the chorus (male-dominated society), the artificiality of Violetta's pompose feste, and the tragedy of the disease which haunts her. Update: Gentle Reader asperias notes that the 15 Jan. performance will be available for listening online from the BBC at 18:00 GMT. Update II: the BBC does not, in fact, have the performance available for repeat listening; sorry about that. Gentle Reader S. has a list of other options in the comments section.
In this staging, Violetta's tragedy is unavoidably present from the outset, as a constant condition rather than an eventuality. There is no curtain; the audience files in to see the white stage, dominated by the clock (it ticks in real time, with a few exceptions.) Next to the clock sits the figure of Dr. Grenvil/Death. In crippling high heels, Violetta totters on to the stage with the first chords of the orchestra, drawn inexorably to this man. Even after dropping the heels and going to him, she is denied paternal comfort. Throughout Act I, the staging highlights the role of the chorus as a disruptive force; they enter en masse, and pursue Violetta around the stage. She, meanwhile, balances precariously on the bench, and even on a sofa held shoulder-high, as she inhabits the role of seductress with fierce commitment. Alfredo's disinterested affection--and perception/intuition of who Violetta truly is as individual, rather than symbol--is highlighted by the collective rapacity of the chorus. (Having an "all male" mixed chorus took me aback on the DVD viewing, but how real is the friendship and support of Flora anyway?)
I know I've spent a long time on the production, but as with any good production, it shaped the characterization of the principals, and the impact of the singing and acting. Andrzej Dobber brought to Germont père a baritone not only powerful, but also rich and complex. He lent "Di Provenza il mar il suol" a nicely rounded tone, but elsewhere used a metallic edge which became (appropriately) snarly in his meanest bits. I wondered whether Matthew Polenzani's Alfredo would have enough charisma to impress alongside his passionate Violetta, but these doubts were settled when he sang. He sang with subtlety and extraordinary expressiveness throughout. Confession: his yearningly held "Ah si, da un anno!" tapering to piano was the first moment of the evening when I choked up (not the last.) His characterization seemed, to me, to be almost exclusively communicated through the voice... but communicated very, very well. Though his voice sounded lighter and clearer than I'm used to in the role, he never sounded stretched. An impressive dynamic range was handled with great finesse.
Marina Poplavskaya was fierce; there is no lesser word.
She took a little time to warm up vocally, which had me more than a little worried, as I lost a few words and thought she might be wandering towards flat. But these difficulties, and worries, were soon surmounted, and she was in terrifically intense form from the brindisi onwards. There's a fairly detailed Q&A with her and Willy Decker about the production and the character of Violetta here. Her phrasing was punctuated with sighs where the orchestra stops with her to catch its breath; her diction was incisive, her acting poignantly direct. I don't have the technical knowledge or technical vocabulary to make detailed pronouncements, but I was both impressed and moved. (And listening to a Sutherland recording a lot should have given me some sort of training, right?) Poplavskaya's Violetta loved defiantly, desperately, and her singing seemed to flow from that. My throat ached from trying not to cry, and her "Addio del passato" was greeted by a hushed house, and there was a deep breath's pause before the first bravas. This post has gone on far too long, but I can't end without praising the orchestra! Gianandrea Noseda led them with a feverish drive which matched the mood of the evening, attentively pacing the singers. Even in the score's most lush moments, Noseda's reading was resolutely unsentimental, and profoundly moving. All in all, an elegant, thoughtful, and passionate Traviata.