Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lightning Strikes Twice

Grigolo and Ciofi, final curtain calls

On my way home this afternoon I passed by La Fenice. I knew the cast of today's Traviata was the same cast I had seen. The matinee was due to start in less than half an hour and I figured I would see if I could get a ticket.

My seat was in the same box I sat in the first time I went to La Fenice in 1990. It is a lateral box above the orchestra and on the first level, the same level as the stage. When the singers are on your side of the stage, you could reach over and touch them. That was precisely how I wanted to see Patrizia Ciofi and Vittorio Grigolo.

Was it as good as Wednesday night? In many ways, it was better. But I think that is because it was more immediate. My seat Wednesday was better both for sightlines and sound, but achieved these by distance. Up very close I could see the shadings of their expressions, what they did with their eyes with their hands.

Ciofi is at her peak; she is capable of taking your breath away. Grigolo is in the midst of a brilliant beginning and where it will lead is anyone's guess. But for now, they set the stage on fire. When she desperately runs her hands through his thick black hair, it is his thick black hair. No wigs. And her signature red hair is part of her character. They are two stunning people desperately in love and fate has decreed that they will not live happily ever after.

Part of these artists' intensity has to do with the fierce difficulty of the music and the level of concentration required to produce it well. But the rest, the hyperdrive they hit, is dramatic inspiration, the director's and theirs. They put the music at the service of the drama and they do it with the power to make us believe it.

The production a perfect visual and theatrical setting for the drama. Everything about it, to the smallest detail, is of a piece and makes sense within itself. Thank Robert Carsen for that. It is 180 degrees from the ugly and inane production of Romeo e Juliette Fenice did earlier this year, the vapidity of the production matched by the mediocrity of the voices. In Traviata, nothing is gratuitous; even the Viva Las Vegas gypsy scene works. What great production of Traviata doesn't veer into kitsch during this interlude?

During the overture Violetta lolls on her velvet bed as men in business suits, one after another, shower her with money. At the end of "Sempre Libera" she is flinging the money around madly. In the second act the leaves that cover the stage of the lovers' country retreat, the leaves they lay in and shuffle through, and that occasionally falls from the trees and from wallets in almost every scene, are dollar bills. In every scene, including the confrontation with Giorgio Germont, a man throws money at her. Everyone misses the point. She has to die before they understand what really made her tick. Sometimes things cannot be put right, the center cannot hold, things do fall apart.

Ciofi and Grigolo took no prisoners. Vladimir Stoyanov, as Germont Pere, did not fare as brilliantly only because in the world of this Traviata he is a grey-suited corporation man, a Senior VP of Finance caught in a tawdry family melodrama. His affect and mannerisms were constricted and constrained. His passion crept in slowly and all the more dramatically for it. It worked for me, and it made his denunciation of Alfredo and his heartbreak at the end all the more touching.

Because I was sitting over the orchestra, I could also watch maestro Myung-Whun Chung. He stood before the orchestra, monkish and still and immensely powerful. He alone put the key in the ignition. Before he did, he waited for complete quiet in the theater. At the beginning of the third act, he waited and waited and waited until the theatre finally became quiet and was just about to raise his baton when when somebody sneezed. I think one the woodwinds cracked up first. The orchestra was heroically stoic as others in the audience giggled, and Maestro Chung, his back to the audience, finally had to laugh.

It was a brilliant afternoon at the opera, but more than anything, it was absolutely exhilarating to hear what I thought was a vanished species, the golden-throated Italian tenor. Grigolo has got it; I hope he does the right thing with it.

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