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'La Traviata', or 'The Fortissimo Consumptive'



There’s a story that when Verdi, that most Italian of composers, traveled by horse and coach to Russia, he went clutching a suitcase of spaghetti. To offset the fur and the ice, his wife purportedly said. I sat on the 18 bus from an unmentionable part of zone four with a greasy wodge of pizza and a beer on my way to the ROH’s big screen presentation of La Traviata at Trafalgar square. There was no fur and ice. It was the hottest day of the year, but the sentiment, I like to think, was similar: deracination.

When we got there, Trafalgar square looked like it had been hit by a Waitrose- sponsored flashmob picnic. It was packed with those ‘I’m not a real opera goer’ types sipping crushed goji berries from an ‘I’m not a real plastic cup’, with ‘I’m not a real city banker’ boyfriend. It was a tasteful riot of floral Liberty print and other strappy passementerie. There was the occasional t-shirted Italian sitting atop stone bollard kicking legs and singing La Provenza like someone was killing their mother. There were even, God forbid, the occasional child cooling its legs in the fountain.

As I chewed meditatively on my pizza and looked around at the throng that didn’t quite teeter on the verge of social diversity, I wondered if the opera world was not being a bit hypochondriac. It’s always self-diagnosing its imminent demise. ‘Am I dying’ it asks querolously. Am I terminal? Is this the end? But the turn out at Trafalgar square would suggest that the opera still retained a fairly healthy pair of lungs. Well, it drew as big a crowd to the square as Palestine or Iran. And the cheer that soprano, Renee Fleming got would suggest a fairly clean bill of health.

Okay, so it was Richard Eyre’s La Traviata. It’s a hoary old crowd pleaser for sure: gypsies, gambling, prostitutes, drinking songs, naked lady ice sculptures, voluminous nightwear. It’s one of the three ‘base camp’ operas (emphasis on ‘camp’) of the forgettable 50s. ‘The thrillers and money-spinners’ they say contemptibly of Rigoletto-Travatore-Traviata. Mere fumblings in the dark before Verdi ascended the Everest of real genius and produced Aida.

So here we were, perched on inflatable cushions at base camp. This street opera thing is not new. They’ve been taking Verdi to the streets for years. Nabucco was being hawked on wheezy barrel organs one hundred and fifty years before they flash mobbed train stations in Paddington and Zurich. (Iraq gets Wagner, note.)
A squawking gaggle of media types and Sloaneys on a rug beside us (that we all wanted to stick pins) in reminded me that Verdi composed Traviata surrounded by a cacophony of his second wife’s parrots in the sprawl of Sant’ Agata overlooking the bleak hills of Parma, a land stuck between the vehemence of dust and the vehemence of snow. Piave, described as the bullish Verdi’s ‘little ‘yes man’ penned from his apartments in central Venice, without evident complaint, the most erotic and scandalous libretto of the time. (Verdi’s other librettist, Solero, had to be locked in a cupboard to write even a shopping list.) Piave’s Traviata libretto is based on Dumas the Younger’s play which sent Paris into convulsions on its premier for its sympathetic portrayal of the infamous young courtesan. Piave expired a few years later, rendered immobile and incapable of speech, struck down by that fatal disease those who loved too much tended to get back then. I was hoping that the Sloaney gaggle beside me might be similarly struck incapable of utterance.

Then the Prelude began. As the Sloaneys honked away, not giving a borlotti bean about the big screen, the pizzicato off the strings swam like strands of spaghetti in hot runny mince under the sure hand of musical director, Pappano. The pit was a deep vat of Sanguinaccio across which Flemmings’ voice slipped and slithered sometimes as light and tiptoey as a will’o’the wisp sometimes as strident as a Brunnehilde. She did things with her voice I couldn’t even name. It was like an epiglottal version of the Karma Sutra. Verdi may be derided for treating the orchestra like a mere claque, there to strike chords and make an appreciative noise or two, but Pappano grabbed it by the bass and squeezed. The deep benthic notes out of which the clarinet upspiralled in mourning in bel canto orchestral twiddle was beautiful. It seemed to rise taller than the Nelson column. (There are moments in Verdi’s early operas when the melody seems snatched from the singer like a wallet, then circulates the orchestra losing tenners and credit cards along the way and then is tossed out back, empty. Yes, much as I hate to say it, the Germans were a bit ahead. The storm in Die Walkure is not mere wallet-stealing from the soloist, it’s a 3 dimensional shuddering climactic raw-nerved shuddering act of orchestral terrorism – the orchestra embodies the shuddering terror of the terrified Sigemund. The strings splatter shattered nerves in all directions.)

Anyway I dripped more cheese than Giorgio the hot Dad did in La Provenza. (Hampson was glorious. He was a kitchen top of granite teflon, a brutal judgemental godfather with a John Travolta bouffant and Richard Clayderman jaw. He was a regular BILB – baritone I’d like to bonk. I melted quicker than the naked lady ice sculpture on stage and eyed him with wild journalistic surmise. The cheese coloured flip flop in my hand wilted as I clutched it.) The fluorescent gentleman behind me said for the hundredth time ‘this is not an exit’.

Anyway, despite the Sloaneys who should have been locked in their picnic basket it felt good not being in the museumy red hush of the opera house. I felt much more connected to the characters actually being able to see them. It felt great not to have to beg for a tap water at the Bollinger bar during the interval. And it was fabulous (darling) to be able to see what was going on. Beyond the sea of floral ladies, a sweating amorous Alfredo played by an endearing Jose Callejo, on the big screen, twice the size of a silverback stalked Violetta and was knocked down by the BILB for his pains. Poor Violetta, menaced by projected shadows of her past life retired to bed. And no wonder. Consumption and prostitution aside, over the years, poor Violetta’s been ridden hard and she’s been ridden by many. She’s just one of those diva roles that singers shoehorn themselves into every other season. Technically she’s the other side of impossible to sing, three singing disasters in one. (Bulow nicknamed Verdi The Attila of the Voice) Most famously was the disastrous Fenice premiere of 1853 when the whole audience dissolved into tears of laughter at the sight of soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, a stodgy warbling walrus in spangly crinoline with all the heft of a tipping truck in the role of a 14-year old courtesan-waif dying slowly of consumption. The critics joked that she was more likely to die of dropsy.) Yup, there’s nothing that sums up the realism of opera like a fortissimo consumptive. That said Flemming was stupendous.

Verdi was born at a slightly odd juncture in operatic history just as it seemed as Italian opera was going into decline: all those greats who’d tossed out arias like tourettes were on the wane: Bellini was dead, Rossini had debunked to Paris and was over-eating and getting drunk and doing anything but writing operas and Donizetti was off up the crow road to elbow-chewing and bucket-kicking. And Verdi was born that inauspicious year in which God saw fit to usher Wagner in. (All hail please). Wagner was to be a large shadow that would haunt him from across the mountains. Like poor Mahler, Verdi was accused of being some ignoble little epigone by the Zitti Zitti gang of Germano-centric opera lovers and Wagner claques. (It was Verdi who took a pencil in disgust through most of score of Loehngrin as being so much hot air.) Verdi was never one to dawdle. His ouevre comes through dramatic contrast and the sheer onward momentum of his operas. Watching the principals interact on stage is a bit like watching a slow motion pile up on the M1 during rush hour. He’s not one to chase the hippy ghost spume of a leitmotiv round and round the orchestra as Wagner tended to do. For hours.

As our evening cooled and as the light faded from the sky, and Violetta faded towards death even the medics were watching open mouthed. (Faded is perhaps the wrong word - her expiration was fairly energetic and encompassed the much commented upon ‘victory lap’ of the bed, hence perhaps the slightly puzzled expressions of the medics.)