Review – La Traviata (English National Opera, Tuesday 12 February 2013)
Violetta Valery – Corinne Winters
Alfredo Germont – Ben Johnson
Giorgio Germont – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Flora Bervoix – Clare Presland
Doctor – Grenvil Martin Lamb
Annina – Valerie Reid
Viscount Gaston – Paul Hopwood
Baron Duphol – Matthew Hargreaves
Marquis – Charles Johnston
Director – Peter Konwitschny
Designer – Johannes Leiacker
Lighting – Designer Joachim Klein
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Conductor – Michael Hofstetter
It wasn’t only Violetta’s life that was cut short in ENO’s new production of La Traviata.
I have to admit that when I read of the “edited” version being proposed by English National Opera I was, at best, unconvinced. I think there are few justifiable reasons – bar perhaps in some baroque works – to cut actual music from operas, particularly if – as is the case of La Traviata – it was never originally considered by the composer.
And yet all credit to Konwitschny, the singers, chorus and orchestra for creating – bar a few questionable elements – a compelling and thought-provoking interpretation.
I studiously tried to avoid reading any reviews of this production before attending the performance on Tuesday evening.
This was literally a Traviata stripped bare. No gowns. No lace. No frippery. A series of curtains across the stage, a single chair and a pile of books.
Of course this isn’t the first time that a director has pared this opera back to a minimalist setting. I am thinking of the Met’s recent production for example. But here – despite the size of the Coliseum’s stage – it seems starker and more brutal.
There was no escaping from the inevitable tragedy.
Clearly the curtains represented the various layers of Violetta’s own life, peeled away as the story unfolded. But perhaps also they were representative of other things?
For instance, they literally drew a convenient veil over the uglier aspects of Violetta’s life – the cruelty of her society friends, the voyeurism with which they intruded and ultimately as the curtains were ripped down, the fragile balance of her life itself. Also it underlined the emptiness of her life. There was literally nothing in it.
But there seemed something almost Freudian – sexually suggestive if you will, as let’s not forget that Violetta is a courtesan who plied her trade – in the way that the curtains were not only pulled apart but also in the way that the characters wrapped themselves in the folds of the fabric.
And quite movingly at the end the two main protagonists pretended to pull them back to their original positions as they vainly tried to recapture the past and ignore the present.
Yet there were some elements that I think need a bit of fine-tuning.
The brutality of Germont pere, for example, was not totally convincing. Nor was the idea of introducing a daughter into the equation. Dealing with the latter first, it was an interesting theatrical device – but for some reason Konwitschny portrayed her as a schoolgirl which didn’t work for me. The daughter is on the verge of getting engaged, which is the why the father has turned up, so why is she in pigtails? Secondly the sudden and violent outburst from the father was out of kilter with his general character and particularly his subsequent – and touching – scene with his own son. Yes, to the audience he is being a cruel man in persuading Violetta to give up Alfredo, but from his point of view it’s a question not only of his daughter’s future but also of family honour.
And while using the auditorium was effective, particularly in the closing scene, I think they need to rethink Alfredo clambering over the audience in the front row. Not only was it slightly comical but also I can imagine those in the first two or three rows weren’t best amused especially in the closing and emotionally charged scene to be so distracted. But there is not denying the emotional impact of those closing moments – Violetta alone on the stage and suddenly it is the audience who are – uncomfortably – the voyeurs.
Any production that strips away the artifice requires a strong cast. And this production was fortunate as sometimes casting can be a hit and miss affair at ENO.
Corinne Winters made an extraordinary House debut in the role. Her bright, at times glittering soprano could also – when needed – acquire the hard edge of characterization as well as reduce itself to the slightest vocal whisper. And she was a good and credible actress throughout. Her sense of isolation at the end was gripping. But perhaps they could rethink her costume in the second act? While the device was clear – eschewing all glamour for Alfredo – it seemed almost too absurdist.
Ben Johnson was a promising Alfredo but personally his tenor was a tad too light for me. On the other hand Anthony Michaels-Moore as his father had a resonant bass/baritone and delivered some beautifully phrased singing.
And special mention must go to the Annina of Valerie Reid. Often a role that is cast as an after thought she combined a clear soprano with strong acting.
The ENO chorus once again proved to be a strong card in the production, playing to a tee a ground of self-centred, cruel posse of voyeurs. The choreography in what would have been the third act was particularly chilling.
In the pit the ENO orchestra were on top form, with warm string playing and clearly etched support from wind and brass. Michael Hoffstetter – a conductor I more commonly associate with baroque and early classical repertoire – brought a real clarity and chamber quality to much of Verdi’s score. My only wont was for a bit more flexibility – ebb and flow as it were.
This production was undoubtedly thought provoking and strongly directed. There is no denying that Konwitschny’s vision hurtles towards the tragic denouement but I couldn’t help thinking that this Traviata was a creative yet theatrical experiment.