There's a tendency now for some producers, when confronted with some of the best-known and popular works, to strip them of all the fat that has been gained over the years through lazy convention. Verdi's opera, the only one he wrote with a contemporary subject (although even that was eventually denied him by the censor), is one that could certainly withstand and perhaps even benefit from a fresh perspective, as Willy Decker's production for Salzburg (now currently at the Met in New York) demonstrated. This somewhat minimally staged 2011 Oper Graz production by Peter Konwitchny certainly puts a different emphasis on the score and the drama, but unfortunately cuts it back so much that it loses much of its true essence.
Personally, I find Marlis Petersen, singing the role for the first time, wonderfully refreshing in the role of Violetta Valéry. Her principal Act 1 aria 'Ah fors è lui' and cabaletta are sung beautifully, purely and without mannerisms, credibly sifting through the conflicting emotions, while her Act 3 'Addio del passato', is just as effective and affecting. Going against more common interpretation, Giuseppe Varano's Alfredo Germont isn't the cocky young man or the impetuous hothead as seen recently on recordings featuring Ramón Vargas, Rolando Villazón or Joseph Calleja. Here, he's a bespectacled nerd, a bookworm in a duffel coat, a shy, inexperienced romantic dreamer who seeks inspiration in his books of poetry. His voice isn't as strong as the aforementioned tenors either, but, by the same token, the performance consequently loses all the operatic mannerisms and finds a way to express more realistically the inner nature of his character. James Rutherford sings well as Germont-père, but here he's characterised as rough and abrasive, with little sympathy or understanding for Violetta's plight when he asks her to give up Alfredo, even wheeling in his schoolgirl-aged daughter in person, beating her and manhandling her in order to blackmail Violetta's feelings.
Such interpretations are valid and viable if they can be made to work, but not if they undermine or contradict the strengths of the original musical and lyrical intent. Cuts in opera are not uncommon - even in La Traviata - but this production is particularly ruthless in wielding the knife in order to make it fit to a design that differs from the original intention. In some cases, the cuts are justifiable in focussing the drama back on Violetta and Alfredo and in moving the story along. We lose the gypsy dance and the matador chorus from the start of Act 2 entirely, just so we can get back to Alfredo's confrontation with Violetta after the break-up. Personally, while the music is marvellous, I've always felt that this was rather out of place in the opera and did indeed bring the dramatic flow to a standstill (although Willy Decker's production did indeed manage to put an interesting spin on this section to integrate it back into the work), so it's absence here is understandable if nonetheless regrettable. Other cuts and trims however (Violetta's Act 2 letter-writing, Germont's 'No, non udrai rimproveri', the cutting of references to the baron and the duel, the excision of the doctor's presence from the start of Act 3) feel arbitrary, or worse, are done with the intention of twisting the narrative design.
Fitting in with the stripped-down nature of the production, a miminalist setting consisting of curtains and a chair, there are no big gestures either from the orchestra under the musical direction of Tecwyn Evans. It's nice to hear the detail of the score without it being smothered in punchy grand gestures and mannerisms, but it's questionable whether this is true to the nature of Verdi's dynamism and sweeping arrangements. Actually, it's not questionable at all, but it's how the artistic and musical directors want to approach it and it does put a different and interesting perspective on the work that is worth considering, even if it doesn't always work. With all the cuts to the score and lack of dramatic setting, this 2011 Graz production is not recommended to anyone watching La Traviata for the first time, but it is not without its merits and it is certainly worthwhile for anyone who has despaired of ever hearing La Traviata approached with some originality, freshness and daring.
On a BD25 disc, the 1080i image is not exceptional simply because there's little detail to be seen on stage, and what is there is fairly washed out by the strong orange lighting, but the disc itself is technically sound. The audio mixes, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are wonderful however for anyone who wants to hear the fine detail of the (subdued) orchestral performance and singing. Extras include a 20-minute making of that gets right behind the scenes of the rehearsals and the booklet includes a short interview and a synopsis by the director Peter Konwitchny, which give some idea of his intentions for the production.