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23.11.04

The Phoenix

Other Articles on La Fenice:

La réouverture de La Fenice, la bien nommée (Arte TV, November 18)

Marie-Aude Roux, La Fenice refaite à neuf lance sa saison avec une "Traviata" façon années 1970 (Le Monde, November 17)

Alan Riding, Third time lucky? La Fenice reopens (International Herald Tribune, November 16, originally in the New York Times)

Manuel Brug, Violetta aus dem Kühlfach (Die Welt, November 15)

La Fenice de Venise renoue avec la Traviata (France 2, November 15)

Don Milne, A soap opera in itself - La Fenice back from the dead (The New Zealand Herald, November 10)
I've been meaning to write something about the grand reopening of the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice. (For some background on the arson that destroyed Venice's most famous opera theater and the struggle to rebuild it, see my post from December 19, Opening of La Fenice.) For the first opera of its new season, La Fenice chose a new production of Verdi's La Traviata, staged by Robert Carsen and conducted by Lorin Maazel (November 12 to 20). One of the performances was broadcast live on the absolutely wonderful European arts network, Arte, which I continue to urge my satellite provider to carry. You lucky Europeans! Here is what Nicolas Blanmont had to say about the choice of opera, in his article (L'opéra retrouve la Fenice, November 18) for La Libre Belgique:
On March 6, 1853, La Traviata was premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Two years after the triumphal premiere of Rigoletto in the same theater, it was, according to Verdi himself, a fiasco. It was not until 1854, on another Venitian stage—the San Benedetto—and with a score slightly reworked by the composer, that the work knew the success that has not lessened since. A century and a half later, this is the famous Verdi work that La Fenice has chosen to reopen its doors to opera. After the fire of January 30, 1996, after the Italian-style judicial-real estate saga of the reconstruction, after the inauguration of December 2003 with a series of symphonic concerts—the stage machinery still had to be finished and acoustic tests were still being carried out—Verdi has come back in triumph in one of the most legendary halls of the operatic world. The house is sold out in spite of crushing prices (200 to 4,000 € [US$261.15 to $5,229.99] per ticket for the premiere, and from 50 to 1,200 € [US$65.29 to $1,566.90] for the other performances), as if La Fenice had intended with just one opera to finance a season that will become much more audacious afterward: Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore, Rossini's Maometto secondo, Mozart's La Finta semplice, Donizetti's Pia de'Tolomei, and Strauss's Daphne, with the only chestnut—sort of—being Parsifal. [NB: the first Venitian performance of Offenbach's Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein is also on the program—CTD]
Carsen has set the action in the 1970s, with Violetta as a drug-addicted luxury prostitute (the guests at the party of the first scene throw dollars at her), supposedly in reaction to Verdi's desire that the opera be shown in costumes contemporary with the viewers. Marie-Aude Roux, writing in Le Monde calls it a "No Future for Violetta the jet-set whore, who lives and dies in sequins and black lingerie, for a few fistfuls of dollars." While most of the reviews I have read find the production somewhat trite, for all of its shock value, the casting has received high praise.

While I am happy to see La Fenice producing operas again, especially some of the less familiar fare set for the rest of the season, I regret that this most famous of opera theaters missed the chance to present a premiere of a new opera. In my class on Friday, on Opera in the 20th Century, I used this event as an example of how the attitudes of opera houses (audiences are probably also to blame) work against modern opera. I doubt that, for a similar reopening in Venice in the 18th or 19th century, a house would have chosen to produce a popular opera from 150 years ago rather than a new work. (Reprisals of favorite older operas were not uncommon in previous centuries, but usually only to take the place of failed new operas.) I appreciate the historical significance of La Traviata (an opera that I love, after all), especially in its original (albeit inferior) version, but I cannot help but feel that this decision is not only a cowardly bow to tradition but also symptomatic of the trends that have made opera retrogressive and perhaps doomed to obsolescence.

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