This familiar story of Violetta, her love and death is the world’s most-performed opera. With new staging that marks the North American debut of the German director Peter Konwitschny, Seattle Opera hopes to shed fresh light on Verdi’s 1853 masterpiece.
“ ‘La traviata’ last night a failure. Was it my fault or the singers’? Time will tell.”
Verdi wrote this in reaction to the worst premiere of his mature career.
He didn’t have to wait long for time to tell. Within a little more than a year, the fiasco became a sensation. But the future would vindicate Verdi’s 1853 opera to a degree far beyond what any sane composer could have foretold.
by Giuseppe Verdi. Jan. 14-28, McCaw Hall, Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
“La traviata” is not only Verdi’s most popular work — last season, according to Operabase, an online database for the industry, it easily outranked other favorites as the most-performed opera around the globe.
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Still, the production that Seattle Opera will present later this month might well strike even the most seasoned fan as a freshly discovered Verdi opera.
That’s because director Peter Konwitschny clears away many of the received ideas with which “La traviata” has become freighted through overfamiliarity — clichés, above all, about a “fallen woman” and a sentimentally doomed love story.
“I think it’s very easy for ‘La traviata’ to be completely misunderstood,” says Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera’s general director. “When I first saw [the new staging] at English National Opera, I was struck by how the structure of the production forces you to home in on Violetta and what her story is.”
Verdi and his librettist based “La traviata” on a popular play adapted from a novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, which in turn drew from the French writer’s affair with an upper-class prostitute famous in Parisian society.
The opera follows the final months in the life of its heroine, Violetta. Ill with tuberculosis and living on borrowed time, she decides to invest her emotions in her love for a young man, Alfredo, but is confronted by his father, who wants to safeguard his family’s reputation.
“Verdi always took the side of the victim. That was the starting point for my ideas about ‘La Traviata,’ ” Konwitschny explained during a recent telephone conversation in German.
The cruel Parisian society as depicted by Verdi wants nothing more than “to enjoy the spectacle of this most famous prostitute during her illness and as she is dying.” For Konwitschny, even Alfredo is childlike, by comparison, in his lack of self-awareness. Violetta is the sole fully developed character with agency: “Verdi wants us to feel a great sympathy for her.”
Konwitschny, 71, ranks among the most prominent directors active in Europe. His “La traviata” staging, which originated in 2011 at Graz Opera in Austria, has already been revived twice in London and was released on DVD by Arthaus.
Yet his work remains little-known across the pond. Seattle Opera’s production will mark Konwitschny’s much-belated North American debut.
Serving as the revival director in Seattle — Konwitschny was already committed this month to direct a new production of “Peer Gynt” in Vienna — is his protégée Mika Blauensteiner, a Vienna-born director. She assisted at the Graz premiere and was later entrusted by Konwitschny to oversee the production for various other companies.
“So often we see this opera presented as a tragic love affair about a weak woman,” Blauensteiner explains. But the vision behind Konwitschny’s production centers on “a strong woman who knows she is about to die. She is making her last decisions and wants for once to experience this real love. And she remains brave to the end, fighting against society and against death.”
Violetta is also regarded as one of the most fearsome soprano roles in the repertory. Corinne Winters, who will alternate in the part with Angel Blue, previously performed Konwitschny’s staging in London.
The director calls Winters “a marvelous singer-actress” and points out that her youth brings a special kind of “power and strength” to the character. “In a certain way, it becomes even worse when a younger woman is the one who perishes.”
The visual design is radically pared down to a series of drapes that are successively drawn. Konwitschny enhances the focus on Violetta’s story by foregoing an intermission and by a combination of standard and more controversial cuts (including the ballet entertainments in one of the later scenes).
“It gives the piece tremendous drive, which is the pulse of the piece,” Lang says. “Without a break it gains a forward momentum and an inexorability which completely parallels these last months of Violetta’s life.
“This is not a concept production in any way. Konwitschny gets to the heart of the drama and makes it very clear and relatable to the audience — which is what Verdi intended.”