There is a moment in this production of La traviata that works as a reality check. In her last moments, at the final meeting between the lovers, Violetta begs her Alfredo from the bed: "Come closer". In response, he stays watching her motionless, strictly maintaining the two metre distance recommended by the health authorities. This is only one of the infinite number of difficulties that arise when staging an opera in times of COVID-19. But despite the obstacles, Teatro Real's staging concept for its reopening works, precisely because it makes an explicit connection with the reality that plagues us – it makes use of the fact that the protagonist suffers from a serious respiratory disease.

Lisette Oropesa (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Lisette Oropesa (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The chorus approaches the stage with very visible masks that they take off when they start singing. They seem to be saying "Goodbye to the gags. It's time for singing to return". The performers are located on the boards in designated areas that, far from hiding, are highlighted – a grid in bright red on black to mark social distance. Stagings of Traviata usually orbit around death or social pressure, but in this case it is the presence of disease that dominates the action. Dramatic empathy on the part of the audience becomes inevitable.

But if this particular performance is memorable, it is because of a magnificent performance by Lisette Oropesa. With the Madrid audience still full of memories of her Lucia last summer in this same theatre, the American (and now nationalised Spanish) soprano gives a dramatically sweeping and vocally very personal portrait of the protagonist. If we look at the cliché of Violetta's three voices – light, lyrical and dramatic – Oropesa's voice sits in the first of the triad and she remained there throughout the performance. She mastered with ease and comfort the agility of the first act while showing us a timbre that, without being very rich in harmonics, seduced us by brilliance and homogeneity. During the second act, an excellent command of legato and very careful diction – each word, each inflection in each syllable was understandable – demonstrated  the technical quality of this artist. And in the final part, the lightness of her instrument painted a delicate Violetta, fragile to the point of breaking at any moment. The mastery of the pianissimo and dynamics presided over the ending, shattering the myth that a fuller voice is essential for the dénouement and leaving the unforgettable memory of an "Or tutto finì" issued as an exquisite and eternal floating filament.

Lisette Oropesa (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Lisette Oropesa (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Her male companions, unfortunately, were not up to the same standard. Ivan Magrì has a handsome timbre and remarkable power, but suffered from numerous technical difficulties in intonation, attack and construction of the singing line. As a result, he sounded somewhat better in the dramatic passages than in the lyrical ones. Something similar happened with Nicola Alaimo's Germont: his recitatives were robust, but his "Di Provenza" barely showed the musicality that the piece deserves. The secondary singers provided a worthy vocal match to the quality in the title role; I'll give a mention to the few but impeccably executed phrases of Sandra Ferrández as Flora. In the pit, enlarged at the expense of the stalls and populated with methacrylate screens, Nicola Luisotti offered a fluid and friendly reading with a full orchestral sound and a level of theatricality which sometimes bordered on excess, as in the extreme ritardandos for Oropesa's most introspective moments.

Lisette Oropesa (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Lisette Oropesa (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

We must applaud the courage and immense organisational effort that Teatro Real has made to bring opera back to us, making it a pioneer in Europe. First of all, for having brought first-class artists for a whole month of performances, in the form of four casts and five Violettas. But also, for the myriad of safety elements implemented – doubling of performances, entrance shifts, thermometers, segregation of areas, sealed seating, digitalisation, staggered exits from the hall, structure of the pit and the stage, among many others – coordinated and perfectly choreographed so that everything flows with maximum comfort for the spectator. If the event works on this occasion, it is largely due to the irrepressible desire of both audience and artists to return to art. But two questions are then inevitable for the next season, which is expected to begin in September: will the finances support a half full hall and the cost of security measures? Will the fifteen programmed operas withstand the scenic limitations imposed by social distance? Only the future reality, today shrouded in uncertainties, will give us the answer.

****1