I may have imagined this, but to me the overture to Verdi’s opera sounded muffled, distant, almost like a nostalgic reminder of a familiar piece of music, rather than a piece we were hearing (I was, at any rate) for the first time.
Then the red velvet drapes open on… another set of red velvet drapes. Through which erupt the partygoers in black suits or little black dresses, and their hostess Violetta. The whole party takes place between layers of artifice, with shy Alfredo in spectacles and a beige cardigan pushed towards Violetta as a cruel joke.
Throughout the opera, layers of curtains open and close. Sometimes Alfredo and Violetta move them, opening up their feelings and hiding them again. At one point they’re violently torn down. It’s a simple idea but it works in this production by Peter Konwitschny. He has cut the piece back to its simple lines: boy meets dying girl; they fall in love but society tears them apart; he comes back to her but she dies. Played straight through, with no interval, it runs under two hours.
The human voice, expressing with extraordinary skill the most powerful moments of anybody’s life: love, betrayal, loss, death: this is opera stripped of flamboyant spectacle, which leaves the story and the feelings all the more universal. True, dying of TB is now avoidable, in the developed world at least. True, living in unmarried bliss no longer means shame for your family and an obstacle to your sister’s marriage. But the happiness of love, the pain of sacrificing your own relationship for another’s future happiness, the cruelty of death, have not been abolished.
It would be comforting if Violetta’s last moments were peaceful and resigned, if the fact her lover returns to her could make dying of TB romantic. But the fact Alfredo has come back, that they might have had a second chance at happiness, only twists the knife in Violetta. ‘Dear God, to die so young,’ she sings, burning with anger.
By the end, only Violetta is left on stage, facing oblivion alone. Alfredo and his father are in the auditorium with us, watching the solitary drama of another’s death. All the red velvet is gone, leaving nothing but light and darkness. And the music, and the human voice.