Traviata on TV A highly original TV version of La Traviata, directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi and shot by three - time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, was recently beamed out live to 125 countries from Paris utilizing many of the actual locations in which the opera is set.

Eight years after a similar RAI project with Tosca in Rome, this RAI/Andrea Andermann production, featuring Eteri Gvazava, Jose Cura, and Rolando Panarai, used such Parisian landmarks as the Italian embassy (for Act I), Versailles (Act II), Petit Palais (Act III), and Notre Dame (Act IV). The event was recorded for both DVD and 5.1 audio CD.

Storaro approached this TV project as if it were a film. "Even if it this is a television project beamed live to over a hundred countries, we call it a `live film,' as we've transported opera from the very static environment of traditional TV coverage to a new dimension in which the story is told from different real-life locations," he explains." This obviously means that the blend of music and image becomes much more complicated. Patroni Griffi's directing has to be extremely narrative, like a novel, the only difference being that the story is sung. Then there are the cameras [24 were used, including four Steadicams], which have to move around the sets without being `seen' by each other. At the outset, this was an attempt to explore a terrain which even we don't know - so a real challenge, but also the pleasure of discovering how audio-visual language can be used differently from the norm."

Apart from the technical aspects, Storaro's approach to "seeing" the story found inspiration in a very unlikely direction. "I tried to visualize the acts by means of the four fundamental elements of life, using a sort of metaphor of Greek philosophy - representing the first act by means of air, in which Violetta lives the experience of Paris in the 1800s and this blue color, particularly at dusk between sunset and moonrise, shows us a city which is magic, airy, and completely free. The second act at Versailles is under the element of earth, with its ochre color reflecting the relationship between the two leading characters and the hard decision they have to make. Then the third act at the party given by Flora is bound to the element of fire, and red, indicating not only the sacrifice the heroine makes, but also her inner conflict and great passion. The fourth act begins running along the Seine with images of her memories and then reaching her ill face in the apartment - here the element of water also reflects her life, which is slowly ebbing."

Because such events don't make allowances for downpours or other emergencies that could have delayed the show, a safety copy of the four episodes was recorded as a precautionary measure, but Mother Nature was reasonably well behaved, so this didn't have to be used. Another technical "safety net" provided for the positioning of more than one of the miniature Sennheiser MKE 2-4 Gold microphones (used with SK 50-UHF transmitters and EM 1046 Diversity receivers) in the soloists' hairpieces or costumes.

Apart from on-location work, technical complexities were accentuated by the decision to place the orchestra in an independent hall and have the sound transmitted to the four sites where the action takes place. Zubin Mehta conducted the RAI National Symphonic Orchestra in Wagram Hall, approximately 30km, or 18.6 miles, from the rest of the production.

Needless to say, this gave Francesco Penolazzi, designer and technician in charge of the onsite sound system, all sorts of challenges. "From a technical and logistical point of view, my brief was to give singers and orchestra a `monitor' setup," he explains. "As far as the singers were concerned, this had to be precise and well defined, as well as being as close as possible to theatre sound, but also ensuring that no speakers were seen by viewers. We also had to give the orchestra and conductor, in the Wagram Hall, a canned feed of the singers - in short, a sort of PCM `umbilical cord' between the singers and the orchestra, courtesy of France Telecom. I'd already faced the main difficulties involved in a project of this type when we did Tosca in Rome in 1992," he continues. "I therefore knew where the 360 enclosures, traditional mini monitors, and the larger three - way systems for bigger rooms should be placed, so this time was basically a case of working on the quality."

Penolazzi chose five Soundcraft Spirit 328 desks, used to control the enclosures, a combination of JBL Control (eight SB2 subs, eight Control 8s, 16 Control 5s, and 24 Control 1s), Sound Advance (26 BT82s and two BT 2000s), and Generalmusic (36 K6s and 36 MP60s). Audio contractor Global Service provided the equipment. "The BT82s are systems with full 360 sound dispersion, chosen specifically for this feature on both occasions," he adds. "Strangely enough, the outdoor scenes, which one might imagine as being the most difficult, were in fact the easiest, whereas the first act, in the embassy ballroom, had 60 chorus members singing, dancing, and moving about the set, in addition to the solo singers. So, apart from all the open mics, which didn't help matters, we had 36 speaker systems in the room to ensure that everybody heard the orchestra perfectly, but they had to be strictly invisible to the RAI troupe's cameras."

Penolazzi adds, "It's not every day that the client gives you carte blanche, with ample space to maneuver - you're completely free of any technical ties and just have to come up with the goods, with any possible means. The frustrating part of the job was that the only people who heard the results of our work were the cast."