La prima della Scala fever spikes and the only medicine is Verdi (and more cowbell). Last night, La Scala opened its doors to an under-30 neophyte litmus in the final La Traviata dress rehearsal before Saturday's official season opener. Applause pounded for Daniele Gatti's Verdi, Diana Damrau's Violetta and Piotr Beczala's Alfredo, with less enthusiasm for Željko Lučić's Germont.
The new production, signed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, places less emphasis on the scenery (scrubbed-up, modernized, mid-19th century throwback) and more 'fantasy' into modern day costumes -- notably Damrau who's been capped with a platinum blond wig of Marilyn Monroe curls (like that Aix-en-Provence Mireille Delunsch Violetta) and wrapped in a costume that oozes glamor (a low-cut blue dress, decolletage dripping with Swarovskyish ice), sexy but naive. In Act II, when Germont comes to tell Violetta that he's got 99 problems but she ain't 1, she's preparing homemade pasta in a well appointed kitchen.
The big shocker, from today's Corriere della Sera by journalist Pierluigi Panza, is that Violetta dies in a wooden chair, in a bare room with one window -- at her side an empty bottle, a telephone (lol landline) and a winter comforter. Austere, Ikea death. The death chair echoes (intentionally or not) the iconic, now-exemplar 1955/56 Scala-Visconti Traviata with Giulini, Di Stefano and Callas, when the world's most stylish diva died in a chair, at the time, very controversial.
Tchernaikov spoke to Corriere della Sera's Giuseppina Manin and explained that his conception of Traviata was inspired by Ingmar Bergman and the psychological games of the protagonists, represented by an intimate, claustrophobic world of closed spaces where nothing is seen beyond the windows. He said:
The social context stays in the shadows. Since Traivata was first staged, 160 years have passed. Everything's changed from then to now. First and foremost, morals. Words like 'reputation', 'honor' and 'sacrifice' sound very different than they did in the mid-19th century. Today no one's without sin and therefore who can judge a prostitute? Violetta of today could totally resemble a movie star. A seductive Marilyn Monroe, a bit irrational, beyond any kind of moral judgement.
Tchernaikov analyzed every page of the score with Gatti and said of the collaboration, "His observations were very useful. What was the trend in the 19th century is no longer the trend today [...] It's better to seek the deep motivations of everyone. You will find that even the terrible Germont has his reasons and justificatons."
While we wait for Saturday night, there's an excellent interview in Corriere della Sera's ViviMilano between Milanese conductor Daniele Gatti and journalist Gian Mario Benzing. This will be Daniele Gatti's second Traviata at La Scala and his second Scala season opener. Gatti's professional Verdi roots were planted when he was 20 with Giovanna d'Arco, then a Rigoletto in Bologna with Nucci and June Anderson. As a former La Scala loggionisti, the Milanese maestro grew up with Verdi in his blood and studied Falstaff often with his composition teacher.
Gatti says that Verdi's Traviata isn't necessarily an Italianate opera as it speaks of the influence of European cultures, notably Parisian, like the opening brindisi with a touch of 'folies bergères' and the waltzes and dances have overtones of French gaiety. The waltzer steps are intertwined with Greek meter -- two short and one long with the accent on the third syllable -- and the Greek tragedy manifests itself in the passage of time, especially towards the finale of anguish/death.
On his particular interpretation, Gatti said:
Everyone has their own ideal Traviata and it's difficult to be convincing. I however will not be a conductor who pulls the chariot of tradition: if you come to hear me, don't expect tradition. I feel pure in front of such a work of art -- when I re-study a score, I push myself to interpret it just like as if I had picked it up fresh from delivery.
La traviata is an opera that's been most performed and most abused. It's difficult to scrape off all the cliches that have famously accompanied it. Instead, cliches need to be avoided. I'm looking for a style that's dry. Expressive, but dry, and less redundant. I wrote out some mini-variations in the 'ripresa' of some of the cabalettas. For example, the one for the baritone, "No, non udrai rimproveri," you sing it two times and I'll make it much quicker, like a song that's anxious and throbbing -- Germont wants to be an affectionate father, but in reality he believes as an instrument in the hands of gawd and knows only how to put on a sense of guilt.
Gatti doesn't believe that Traviata is verismo and considers it more as realism and he wants none of his singers to use an excessive vocality. "It's a tragedy, but intimate and dignified." He continues: "Violetta is Rigoletto in a skirt who also has this 'hump' -- but her hump is a social deformity that sings about love."
This is Tchernaikov's first Verdi production for La Scala -- he's only exhibited Russian titles for Piermarini in the past -- Prokofiev's The Gambler, Tchaikovsky's Onegin and in March 2014 he's signed to a Rimsky-Korsakov The Tsar's Bride.