By GEORGE LOOMIS
MILAN — When Alfredo, bearing flowers and a gift, arrives at the dying Violetta’s bedroom for a reunion with his lover, he doesn’t immediately rush into her arms. Rather, he pauses timidly — he is slightly fearful of how he will be received. That is one of the many details that lift Dmitri Tcherniakov’s captivating staging of “La Traviata,” which on Saturday initiated a new season at Teatro alla Scala before an audience that included Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, and other representatives of the country’s elite
A Scala opening remains one of Europe’s premier cultural events, but what makes it so isn’t the opening night glitter, but a long commitment to artistry. With “La Traviata,” the house is placating Italian traditionalists by returning to Verdi after having opened last year with Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (2013 is the bicentennial of both composers), and it does so with honor. Mr. Tcherniakov plays down the stuffy moral dimension of “La Traviata” by setting the opera in the present and making the lovers feel contemporary.
First seen looking pensively into a gilded full-length mirror, the celebrated courtesan Violetta — Diana Damrau in superb form — still knows how to throw a great party, but her languorous body language tells you her heart is no longer in it. And so do her surroundings, designed by Mr. Tcherniakov — an elegant but barren green-gray room in which guests, smartly dressed in costumes by Yelena Zaytseva that range from the provocatively casual to black tie, delight in her hospitality.
Only when Alfredo declares that he has loved her for a whole year does Violetta stir with animation. Reverting to party demeanor, Ms. Damrau delivers “Sempre libera” with tonal and technical brilliance, while Annina — more a confidante than a maid in the veteran soprano Mara Zampieri’s portrayal — watches, smoking a cigar.
Violetta finds happiness in the rambling kitchen of the country house she shares with Alfredo, which is as chock full with stuff and warmth as her Paris home is empty. Violetta’s care for Alfredo runs so deep that you can’t believe she would give him up, yielding to his father, Giorgio Germont, who sees their relationship as besmirching family honor.
Despite the logic (thanks to Verdi’s craftsmanship) with which Germont lays out his arguments, they never seem persuasive enough in any production. Mr. Tcherniakov glosses over them, treating the lovers’ rupture more generically. Ms. Damrau turns Violetta’s musically exquisite but elusive comment to Alfredo at the end of Act II that someday he will understand the situation into a scarcely veiled plea that she wants him back, sung on her knees. Just as powerfully, he rejects her.
As cutting-edge theater goes, Mr. Tcherniakov’s staging is relatively mild. His work has often been more controversial. But this did not stop La Scala’s notorious “loggionisti,” inhabitants of the upper galleries, from voicing their displeasure at the final curtain.
Ms. Damrau finds herself in excellent musical company. The sterling tenor Piotr Beczala conveys Alfredo’s unschooled impetuosity while investing Verdi’s vocal lines with the musicianship they deserve. In a performance that builds with fervor, Mr. Beczala makes a fine moment of Alfredo’s often cut cabaletta, prefacing its reprise with an impassioned cadenza and ending the piece with every note in place, sung in proper rhythm and without an interpolated high note.
Mr. Beczala brings a boyish petulance to Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta before their assembled friends, singing vividly but acting slightly reluctant, as if he knows he shouldn’t be indulging himself like this. Predictably, Mr. Tcherniakov treats the elder Germont as a stiff, moralistic figure, and the baritone Zeljko Lucic obliges by projecting confidence and singing with solid tone.
The conductor Daniele Gatti began the evening by invoking a moment of silence in memory of Nelson Mandela, then presided over a glowing performance characterized by uncommon fidelity to Verdi’s score. The orchestra often surged with passion but also played with telling refinement. Near the end (when Violetta sings “È strano”), Mr. Gatti reverted to Verdi’s original divided string writing (after the 1853 premiere, the composer made changes), although you had to listen carefully to hear it.
More obvious was the pizzicato accompaniment for Alfredo’s aria “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” which sounded fine, contrary to those who say it is impractical. Mr. Gatti also restored all traditional cuts and repetitions, which paid many dividends, not least in the cabaletta, “Gran Dio! morir sì giovane,” of the Act 3 duet. At this point, the lovers deserve all the extra time together they can muster, and, besides, there is thus better preparation for Violetta’s final moments, rendered so poignantly by Ms. Damrau. But the final, if silent word is left to Annina, who shoos the men out of Violetta’s bedroom, apparently incapable of forgiving them for the suffering they caused Violetta.
La Traviata. Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Through Jan. 4.