9 April 2001 | the red duchess
A success, and the discovery of a remarkable new actress.
This is the cultural equivalent of building the world's largest hamburger. It is an extraordinary feat of technical logistics - Verdi's most famous opera played out in real-time (over two days) in real locations (urban/rural, interior/exterior, public/private). As it unfolded over the weekend, it was like watching a military operation, as we were bombarded with extraordinary achievements - singers and orchestra miles apart, connected by digital relays with speakers, whimsically, placed in the former's hair; the final act shot in one Steadicam take (at half an hour, apparently the longest). Everything is the first, the longest, the most expensive.
Immediately, there are a number of concerns for the sensitive opera or film lover. The sheer fact of doing an opera in real time and locations betrays a contempt for, or at least frustration with, what opera does. The assumption presumably is that the play will be less bound by formal and spatial constraints, and will be allowed breathe more freely; that the actors will be more natural. This is a fallacy - the first thing you notice as Violetta and Alfredo's father wrangle in a beautifully appointed royal garden is that 'real' people do not sing at each other in everyday life.
It obscures the obvious fact that Verdi composed his opera with the theatre - and its costraints - in mind; taken out of that environment and the contrivances become glaring. Spreading such a claustrophobic, often chamber opera, with a tiny handful of characters, over a huge Paris topography, also distorts the work. All this is before the technical stuff comes in - how do the singers sing so well?; what are the problems in synchronising them and the orchestra?; the intrusive camerawork etc. The danger is that Verdi's opera is reduced to a blueprint on which talented technicians can conjure marvels.
So the good new is that Verdi is not debased. Aside from the philosophical implications of opening out and making concrete and geographical theatre space, there is one major plus. 'La Traviata' has some of the most heartrending music ever written, virtuosic duets, sparkling set-pieces; but it is in severe danger of over-familiarity. Whether through the opera, Dumas fils' source novel, or the famous Garbo film 'Camille', most of us know how the story is going to end. The sheer fact of conducting such a broadcasting operation, where hundreds of little things could go wrong, adds a danger, an unpredictability the original no longer has.
On the positive side, the film process can (obviously) do things the theatre can't. it hurls us into the action where theatre keeps us at a distance; we get close to the characters, see their emotions. More complexly, the camera can use space, decor and lighting through movement to create shifting meanings where an opera set must remain rigid - see the clever use of mirrors in the opening and closing acts.
Film is more free to create meaningful compositions, positioning characters in a less restricted way as a subtext to the narrative. its modes heighten the action - there is a startling zoom close-up on Violetta just as the fatal break with Alfredo is envisioned. Even the potential distractions of the final one-take Steadicam create a fragmentary, suffocating environment that is movingly apt. The monumental setting for Alfredo's public humiliating Violetta gives the scene shocking force.
The freedom of the film also allows us to notice some things more clearly - the hallucinatory quality of Violetta's emotions; the prolonged struggle with Alfredo's father reveals the full horror of bourgeois ideology, its murderous commercialising of ideals such as 'purity' and 'honour'.
The real technical achievement for me is the performances, brilliantly taking advantage of the camera to tone down histrionics and concentrate on revealing character. The hitherto unknown Eteri Gvazara is a miracle, a great singer, yes, but an astonishing actress, achieving in human form the rush of conflicting emotions of the demanding first act, post-party opera; struggling for Alfredo with his father like a dual of souls; carrying off the harrowing humiliation scene with grace and understanding; refusing easy sanctity in a death scene that almost matches Callas.
There is a moment in the first act, when she drops a ring, that looks like a genuine error ; she laughs like a real-life actress recognising a fluff; but it's shown to be part of the scene after all. Acting so genuine you can't tell if it's real-life or not reminds me of Judy Garland in 'The Clock'. I can think of no higher compliment.