Verdi's La traviata
Rebecca Franks enjoys Natalie Dessay's performance as Violetta Valéry in Aix-en-Provence
Bonjour from Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful city in southern France. Tucked away in its picturesque centre, all meandering streets and tree-lined boulevards, is the Palais de l'Archevêché. And snuggled within the ancient walls of this former Archbishop's palace is a fully formed outdoor opera house. With the starry night sky for a roof, and the soft mistral wind rustling the leaves of a tree next to the stage, there's a touch of midsummer magic about the place.
Then, of course, there's the glitz of the cast and musicians. This is a small city, but it's an international festival. For Verdi's La traviata, the LSO is in the pit; French soprano Natalie Dessay is on stage.
Dessay first took on the role of Violetta two years ago in Santa Fe, and her first European appearance in the role this summer has both divided the critics and been the talking point of this production. Dessay isn't the obvious choice to play Violetta. The role requires a powerful dramatic soprano, rather than the high, light coloratura voice Dessay possesses. ‘I’m maybe not the right soprano to sing it,’ she tells me, ‘but I’m the right person to play the role because I have a lot to express as an actress.’
And, after seeing her performance, I'd agree. Yes, there might be moments when her voice shows the strain – although there are moments of great beauty and breathtaking agility as well – but her acting makes her performance a triumph. From the moment Dessay throws a coquettish glance back over her shoulder to draw the audience into the opera's action, her portrayal of the doomed courtesan is compelling, thrilling and completely believable.
In Act I, Violetta is a Holly Golightly-esque socialite, a hedonistic party animal with a taste for alcohol that suggests that tuberculosis might not be her only health problem. After Alfredo – ardently sung by Charles Castronovo – declares his love, her indecision between choosing a life of sensual pleasure or one of committed love is brilliantly portrayed. She falls in love – again, convincingly. And when Violetta appears later in Act III, spirit broken and body exhausted, unable even to lift a glass of water, it was almost painful to watch her.
But, for me, what made this production, directed by Jean-François Sivadier, was the handling of Act II. Verdi’s heroine is the ‘fallen woman’ – the 'La traviata' – of the title. Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, sees her as such; as does the suitor of his daughter. So he demands the ultimate sacrifice of her: to give up Alfredo. The scene is crucial: Germont’s initial callous request receives an indignant response from Violetta. Why would she give up her happiness? But as they continue to talk, and he pleads with her, she softens until she agrees to sacrifice her love for his family.
Giorgio, given a polished rendition here by baritone Ludovic Tézier, sees this as a noble action; ironically Violetta has shown herself to have the strength of character and morals that he thought she lacked. Even as the pair sing to each other 'be happy, farewell', it's clear that from this point on Violetta's fate is sealed. Here, Tézier and Dessay's duet was devastating. This was a production that brought out all the complexities of the relationships between the three central characters: Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio.
Elsewhere, the chorus was on top form – toe-tapping, hip-wiggling and partying, as the modern-dress (indeterminate but with a hint of 1950s) production required. The LSO under conductor Louis Langrée was a winning combination. And, with the opera set as if for a rehearsal of La traviata – we had stagehands pulling across the curtain, chairs moved around stage – when it finished, long after midnight, it was hard to believe that none of the characters were real…
Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine