Many sopranos can sing Violetta in La traviata. Far fewer in number are the sopranos who can be Violetta, who can drag the audience willy-nilly into every twist and turn of the woman’s fate and state of mind. Ermonela Jaho is one of those, as she showed in the first cast of this year’s revival of Richard Eyre’s venerable Royal Opera production. For the second cast last night, Angel Blue more than demonstrated that she is another.

Angel Blue (Violetta Valéry) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Angel Blue (Violetta Valéry)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

This was Blue's Covent Garden debut, and in the first scene, she strode around as if she owned the place. Fictionally, of course, she does – after all, the party is at Violetta’s salon – but there was a confidence of movement and of voice that one could hardly have expected on a house debut. Blue’s voice has complete security of pitch, a warm bath of a timbre and a lovely sense of lilt and shape to the phrases. She also has the acting ability to make you utterly believe in what you’re seeing. In the deathbed scene, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more convincing interpretation of a woman who is desperate to summon up strength but is simply incapable of standing straight. Her interpretation of the end – with Violetta’s last false hope flaring brightly before fizzling to nothing – was spellbinding. And she excelled in pure vocal terms, with a strong delivery of the big arias “Sempre libera” and “Addio del passato”.

Benjamin Bernheim (Alfredo Germont), Simone Piazzolla (Giorgio Germont) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Benjamin Bernheim (Alfredo Germont), Simone Piazzolla (Giorgio Germont)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Last night wasn’t quite a house debut for Benjamin Bernheim – he had a couple of nights in La Bohème last season – but it was our first chance to see him as Alfredo. His interpretation isn’t a conventional one: this Alfredo isn’t a great Latin lover, with Italianate tenor swagger. Rather, his Alfredo starts as a shy, unconfident young man, who only comes to life when he is happily living with Violetta, to have his new found self-confidence cruelly trashed when she leaves him, a trauma from which he doesn’t recover. It’s an approach that’s more Dumas than bel canto, it’s completely consistent with the libretto, and Bernheim delivers it exceptionally well. His diction is pin sharp, there’s plenty of brio in the happier parts like “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”, and he turns genuinely nasty in the gambling scene in Act 2.

To each of these two stars in turn, Simone Piazzola’s Giorgio Germont proved an excellent foil. Piazzola produces Verdi baritone beauty by the bucketload – but only when he wants to. He understands that Giorgio’s dealings with Violetta are not honest and he goes through an array of different voices: authoritative, censorious, pleading, self-satisfied or falsely warm. Together with a good sense of body language – the way he flinches when Violetta demands that he embrace her as a daughter was particularly compelling, it made for one of the best interpretations of the role I’ve seen in a while.

Benjamin Bernheim (Alfredo Germont), Angel Blue (Violetta Valéry) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Benjamin Bernheim (Alfredo Germont), Angel Blue (Violetta Valéry)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

This run of La traviata is also a Royal Opera first time for conductor Antonello Manacorda. His style may not be for everybody, but it made me happy from the first bars of the overture: it’s relatively low on big orchestral sweep (this is definitely not being played as prototype Puccini), but each sound is weighted carefully and accented sharply. There’s a lightness to the playing and a sense of forward motion that is very beguiling.

As ever, The Royal Opera brought in high quality singers for the smaller roles; notable amongst these were Hongni Wu’s attractively sung Flora and Germán E Alcántara's Baron Douphol, delivered with rather more character than usual.

Act 2 Scene 2 © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Act 2 Scene 2
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Richard Eyre’s production, now on its 25th birthday, has the virtues of providing some great eye candy for the party scenes and of generally managing to not get in the way of what is a very carefully crafted story. It may not be bringing anything new to La traviata and it may have become excessively familiar, but my guess is that it’s still considered thoroughly serviceable and will stay with us for some time.

Which means that on the night, it’s really all about the three main roles. And last night, we had three superb performances, none more so than Angel Blue, who conquered the hearts of the Covent Garden audience on her first attempt.

****1