OPERA: Not such a shrinking Violetta

OPERA: La Traviata / Magic Flute Berlin
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Diabetics have nothing to fear from Harry Kupfer's magnificent staging of La Traviata, premiered at the Komische Oper Berlin on 22 December. Without destroying the pathos, Kupfer has stripped off the sugary coating generally applied to productions of this opera.

As the overture begins, we see a huge black tunnel running diagonally across the stage and out over the pit. A shrouded figure in white has her back to us. She turns as the overture ends, and we see a beautiful, sad face. At those first feverish bars, she throws off her cloak: most of the far wall of the tunnel is revealed to be a row of doors with mirrored backs, which swing open and spill out Violetta's guests, a nightmarish crowd of painted women and conspicuously wealthy men in evening dress.

This is Kupfer's first Traviata: he says he has never found the right Violetta before. Well, now he has, in the young Swiss soprano Noemi Nadelmann. She is slim and beautiful, possesses not only a fine vocal technique, but a voice with all the sweet silvery quality of the young Beverly Sills - and she is a formidable actress. In Act 1 we see at once that this Violetta is no shrinking violet, but a young woman full of charm, personality and joie de vivre, with a superficial hardness easily pierced. In other words, a real character, not some sweet chocolate-box creature in a crinoline.

At the end of Act 1, her guests gone, she is left alone in the tunnel. The stage revolves slightly; those doors, now at the rear, swing open to reveal a country garden in the sun: we are in Act 2. Reluctant as I am to carp at anything in this staging, I found a weak point here: Act 2 is pivotal; Verdi knew how to build up to that terrible turning-point of "Amami Alfredo". Kupfer has cut Alfredo's second aria, "Oh mio rimorso" and other small cuts cause the tension to sag.

But it is the final act that lifts this Traviata far above most other productions. Violetta is back alone in that tunnel, dying. She is also hallucinating, and more than half mad. Annina, in nurse's (or prison warder's?) uniform, is possibly not Annina at all. Alfredo's return, and his father's arrival, are illusions. The doors swing back again: we see Alfredo mirrored many times, behind him a country garden; his father enters and sits down in a wicker chair; neither enters the tunnel where Violetta is lying. In a magnificent piece of acting, Nadelmann portrays a woman who in lucid flashes can even mock this fantasy "happy end", and she gives a bitterly cynical toss of the head as she asks Alfredo to present her portrait to the pure young thing he willone day marry (through the open doors, we see this bourgeois wedding in dumb-show). In the final moments, even the illusion forsakes her and she is left alone to die in the gutter.

The young Russian conductor Yakov Kreizberg (recently appointed to head the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) is going from strength to strength with the Komische Oper orchestra, and Kupfer collaborator Hans Schavernoch has excelled himself again with his brilliantly innovative set. Kupfer has found another star in Nadelmann, and given her what any intelligent singer wants: the chance to put everything into a performance and give it fresh meaning.

Nearby, on Unter den Linden, the Staatsoper has pulled out what could have been quite a weapon in the fight for supremacy of Berlin's three opera houses: Karl Friedrich Schinkel's 1816 sets for Mozart's Magic Flute, first seen in this very house. From the many records of this historic production, the designer Fred Berndt has created three-dimensional sets (the 19th-century originals were flats) that give an interesting flavour of the time, with its Napoleon-inspired craze for things Egyptian, and more t han a hint of Alexander von Humboldt's descriptions of Latin America thrown in for good measure - not to mention the aspiring imperial pomp of Unter den Linden outside. (As an architect, Schinkel was not responsible for this, though he did create some im posing buildings on the old Gendarmenmarkt and elsewhere in Berlin, restored during GDR times.)

All this makes for an interesting exercise, but unfortunately August Everding's production is as dead as Schinkel himself, and as flat as his original sets. Nor is it helped by a Tamino (Endrik Wottrich) usually heard in Wagnerian roles. Despite Matti Salminen as Sarastro and Andreas Schmidt as Monostatos, nobody seemed to be really interested in what was going on.