by Paul Bench
The doomed love of Violetta and Alfredo is played out to its tragic end in the English National Opera’s current staging of La Traviata, directed by Peter Konwitschny. The familiar tale of society’s intervention in the course of true love is perhaps most notable in this case for the lack of appreciable balance in narrative bias. No character is really bad. Whilst the audience is driven to question the morals of society and its judgements of Violetta, and by extension the social archetype she in part represents, no ultimate blame is assigned and there is no counterpoint to the virtue almost uniformly embodied by all characters. However, it is Violetta that becomes the eponymous fallen woman, at the behest of a nameless and invisible fate. In this way Violetta is perceived as a symbol of her social position, with a suggestion that even though the narrative substantiates her virtue, her status as a single woman of means is more precarious than that of others, and virtue is no guarantee of worldly success. In this way the opera is an indictment of society’s corrupt standards.
The spare staging of the production, which places Violetta – played by Elizabeth Zaroff – at its centre, expertly positions itself within a tradition of utilising notions of theatre and theatricality to extend its meaning. This is most obvious in the use of and constant reference to the red curtain. Both explicitly and by visual association the curtain is invoked as a metaphor as well as a physical prop, in a manner that is reminiscent of its equivalent in the films of David Lynch. It creates a frequently destabilised method of demi-concealment and encourages a view of the action on stage as essentially performed artifice, a metaphor which is extended outwards to the audience’s own performed social acts and identity. The audience is thus drawn into the action and prompted to critique it with reference to themselves.
The first version of Violetta as the archetypal courtesan socialite is expressed and supported by a dark bobbed wig and red dress with wide box pleats. During ebullient party scenes, movement and positioning reveal a surfeit of fabric with multiple hidden pleats for voluminous effect. The dress is structured and made of a wine red changeant cloth that emphasises the pleats, subtly but purposefully creating a visual link with the folds of the red curtain. Violetta’s dress fixes her both as the centre of the narrative and as a figure somehow apart from the other characters, a typified and acknowledged figure of the theatrical experience.
Two further incarnations see Violetta dressed in a checked shirt that retains the recurring red and black palette, and in black dresses with more fluid silhouettes. These contrasts delineate clear narrative turns. The casual red checked shirt is distinctly aligned with a persona attached to the countryside where Violetta briefly resides with Alfredo, whilst the black chiffon or satin connotes a funereal delicacy in stark contrast to the structured pleats of the waisted style of the first act. The partial transparency and cut of the black costume enables and emphasises the movement required to perform the almost balletic physicality of the closing scenes depicting Violetta’s illness, delusional recovery and finally her death. The move from voluminous structure to diaphanous abbreviated form that echoes the intimacy of underwear, clearly parallels the narrative arc. Violetta appears physically through her dress as more fragile, exposed and solitary.
This decline is most affectingly enacted during Violetta’s physically ambivalent positioning amongst other sprawling bodies pressed to the floor in a scene that anticipates her reunion with Alfredo. Here she is camouflaged, lost to the audience amongst the other figures clothed in black and the black of the stage itself. Her voice calls out imploringly for Alfredo but her position in the crowd cannot be divined. This scene is given additional force by Violetta’s sudden anonymity following a hitherto visual prominence. Her black dress distances her and seems to articulate visually the illness that is drawing Violetta away from the other characters and audience. Her desperation for Alfredo parallels a human desperation for life.
Each stage of Violetta’s progress and therefore that of the play is mirrored not only in her costume, but also by her hair. The first style is a blunt black bob, which is followed by a blonde wig tied with a silk scarf and finally an auburn style. Alongside the adoption of the stage curtain as physical device and metaphor, this is the most ingenious device of the production. In the absence of physical props to establish a sense of place, Violetta’s hair colour defines narrative sequence and location. The alternating of hair type could border on the absurd but instead functions to identify Violetta with artificiality or disguise. This also emphasises a key holistic theme of the opera that posits visuality as potentially unreliable, and life as a performance couched in artifice.
This theme of visual truth or artifice is repeated with the ever significant curtain. At times the traditional curtain is replicated by further partial curtains spaced farther into the depth of the stage, drawing the audience perception into an infinite shadowy blackness. What is not immediately apparent is that these curtains are not of heavy velvet but are chiffon painted with trompe l’oeil effect to resemble these. This is used to dramatic effect in scenes when they are pulled down, in much the same way that the artifice of the wig is exposed in its physical removal before Violetta’s death and assent to heaven. This provides a visual metaphor for the exposure of the authentic and appears as the central theme of the opera, expressed visually and combined with the aural to maximum effect.
La Traviata runs 9th – 13th March 2015. For more information, visit http://www.eno.org/whats-on/la-traviata