The Clock Is Ticking: La Traviata vs. Faustus

As I am counting days until my Winter semester begins and I finally get to go back to class again, allow me to draw attention to two opera DVDs that I have recently acquired and watched/listened to: 2005 Salzburg’s La Traviata with Netrebko, Villazón and Hampson and Pascal Dusapin’s Faustus: The Last Night.  

La Traviata was directed by Willy Decker with a set design by Wolfgang Gussmann: I am not very skillful at opera reviews and would like to draw attention to other aspects of this performance, but for those who care about reviews, here are a couple – one bad and one decentFaustus: The Last Night received much less attention, being an ultra-modern and very “non-traditional” opera indeed.  It was directed by Peter Mussbach (who also did this production of Berg’s Wozzeck, if you are interested in “modern opera”) with set designs by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Again, if you are out to find a review, here’s one.

The clocks:

Gussmann’s design for La Traviata is very minimalist as in “there is nothing but a giant clock and a couch” type of a design. There are no real party scenes or domestic scenes – just one giant white spread of a wall.  The clock gets plenty of attention: it is moved here and there, it is used as a gambling table, and (picture below) as a kind of a setting for an area (not very comfortable, I assume).  

Elmgreen and Dragset create a huge clock set at an angle – all of the opera’s “actions” take place on the face of that clock with singers, at times, performing quite athletic fits to move around or just to stay on the clock.


So what is the deal with these clocks?  I suppose the “easy” explanation would proceed along the lines of positioning these clocks as representations of time, as metaphors for time:  Violetta is sick and is dying so she does not have much time and needs to use every opportunity to pursue her pleasures (of which love for Alfredo, although presented as something opposite to her life in Paris, is but one part, one might argue); Faustus sold his soul to Mephistopheles and, even though starting out (in the story, in general) with a certain despair and emptiness, in the end is forced to admit that there is nothing worth selling your soul for and no amount of time can either explain or take away the essential emptiness of love and life. 

Piave’s libretto clearly attempts to present Violetta’s story (I have not read Dumas’ version in a while, so I will not try to comment on the story in general) as a tale of redemption: Violetta, the fallen one (la traviata), is redeem by her love for Alfredo.  She abandons that which is purely aesthetic and attempts to embrace the ethical in her dedication to one man and her willingness to at least imitate the ethical state of marriage to Alfredo – where is Kierkegaard when you need him!  However, she does not have much time and, instead of enjoying whatever time she has left with Alfredo, she has to abandon him for the sake of his sister.  In Gussmann’s presentation of the story the large clock, I suppose, is there to remind everyone about the contraints of time, but in a very banal way: everyone knows that Violetta is doomed, whethere with Alfredo or without him.

In Dusapin’s Faustus, however, Elmgreen/Dragnet use a clock in some many different capacities that barely into the opera, which only lasts about 1.5 hours, one forgets that it is a clock.  Even though Dusapin’s libretto is at times overloaded with references and philosophical concepts, the clock itself grounds all the allusions and becomes an unlikely foundation for all the “actions” that are taking place: my favorite is, of course, the two guys in bunny costumes – take that, Faustus legend! 

2 thoughts on “The Clock Is Ticking: La Traviata vs. Faustus

  1. when i saw gounod’s faust they also used a weird circular set with strange lighting. i remember that for part of that opera it appeared to be a stained glass window. the set design and costuming of faustus, though, are so fascinating. i’d really like to see that.

  2. the music is really good, i think, but it takes some time getting used to, this is my first opera by Dusapin and i don’t really know what to think of it musically – i like parts of it very much, i wish they had a CD recording of it – but there are not much out there by Dusapin…

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