I AM someone who has always fought shy of opera. I cannot explain why. Perhaps it is because the opportunity has never presented itself and, to be brutally honest, I have never thought of seeking it out.
However, I find myself in the charming city of Linz, the capital of Upper Austria where the stunning River Danube winds its way around in a sweeping arc. I have been invited to attend the Premiere of La Traviata, a production by world-renowned director Robert Wilson.
La Traviata is one of the most popular operas in the world, and I am told to expect something different, for this is what Robert Wilson is best known for. But then, how different, when I have nothing to compare the opera with? I have, by all accounts, entered the realms of opera at the total opposite end of the spectrum, so anything standard about this production will be swept out of the auditorium.
The opera is being staged in the magnificent Musiktheater am Volksgarten, Europe’s most modern opera house, with the famous Bruckner Orchestra Linz. It is here, within the opera house, at the das Anton, that we take dinner, joined by artistic director Mr Schmitz-Gilsdorf.
My small party is treated to seats in the second row. A hush falls over the audience, anticipation hanging heavy in the air. Suddenly, it is as if I have been transported to a magical wonderland. The staging at first glance appears simplicity itself, yet looking closer, and it is extraordinarily eerie; the lighting supremely effective, playing mind games with the brain; the characters acting as robots, some skipping and jumping across the vast stage, heads bobbing too and fro, their voices soaring.
I am utterly transfixed. Having reviewed pop and rock concerts for a good many years as a music critic with the Daily Express, I would love to offer you a personal critique but, as I say, opera is not even remotely on my radar. So I ask Michael White, who accompanied me to the performance, for his opinion.
Michael (left) is a long established opera critic, and currently writes for the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, and Opera Now magazine. “It was what I expected from that particular stage director, but I was mesmerised by it,” he tells me. “It was not a conventional staging of La Traviata and did not really tell you the story, and in that sense it was quite arrogant because it was a production that was really aimed at people who know Traviata. And, of course, people who come to an opera house like this in Linz do know the story, for it is one of the most frequently performed operas of all time.
“If, like yourself, you had come to the show not knowing the opera, the production would not have told you very much about it, but that is the way Robert Wilson works. He is a stage director who grew famous 30 or 40 years ago for doing the long, inscrutable and, in my opinion, quite tedious operas of Philip Glass, and those operas don’t tell a story, they simply mesmerise you into a state of triance-like spaced-outness, and so Wilson developed a way of staging which worked for those operas that are really about poetic stances. It is not about telling you a story, but about creating a very beautiful stage picture and mesmesising you into a sense of trance-like wellbeing, and that is what he did with La Traviata.
“With Robert Wilson, the characters don’t engage with each other in a meaningful way. They barely even look at each other. They move side to side across the stage as though they are cut-out characters in a toy theatre. They don’t move naturally, and really what Robert Wilson productions are saying, and it is a very brave thing to say, is that opera is not real life. Opera is an exquisitive artifice, and if you are trying to recreate real life for stage, you are on a hiding to nothing, because in real life people don’t sing to each other, they do different things. So Robert Wilson creates a different kind of reality, with some people being mesmerised and enchanted by it, and others finding it very irritating. I found last night enchanting.
“Some people would say with a Robert Wilson show like La Traviata, you end up not feeling anything for the characters, but actually I did. I really felt for Violetta, and in the final act when she is dying, and even though she is acting like a doll, like a wind-up sort of autometer, i thought it was profoundly moving, yet I can’t say why.”
So, it would appear that this production of La Traviata was not the best way to be introduced to the piece, as it assumes too much, the presumption being that one is already au fait with the story. All the text was there, admittedly, as was the music, but it was a staging that was so abstract that it did not deliver the details of the story, says Michael. “Every time someone wrote a letter, you didn’t see them actually writing a letter; every time someone had to hand something over, they didn’t actually hand anything over.”
In that case, I ask Michael what would be the more appropriate opera productions for me to attend. Handel operas are, he tells me, very long, and certainly much longer than a Verdi opera, so he recommends possibly the Magic Flute by Mozart, or Don Giovanni, where there is big action and big tunes.
Did I enjoy La Traviata? Most certainly. I found this production amusing and beguiling, other heart-rending and utterly tragic, the music of Giuseppe Verdi swelling with emotion as our consumptive heroine takes her final breath. The cast received a five-minute ovation, a first for the opera house, by all accounts. I hesitate to mention that the milking had been well rehearsed, and Michael was in accord, without a hint of cynicism in his voice. Would I attend another opera? Most certainly, although I have been utterly spoilt by this production, and doubt that I will ever see anything quite as extraordinarily unique or avant-garde… unless it is another Robert Wilson production.
- Opera images © Olaf Struck