Glyndebourne Tour is celebrating its 50th year, and opened its new season with their 135th performance of Verdi’s La traviata – who knows what the worldwide tally of performances is now! At its heart, the opera is about devastation caused by illness, but moreso, male power and privilege, and the placing of money, family and honour above love and honesty. It should be shocking that this is still “a subject for our own age”, as Verdi described it, yet it remains a perennial favourite.

What is it about our desire to still watch this tragic destruction of a ‘fallen’ woman played out before us over and over again? Verdi’s intention to set the action in the present day was thwarted by the censors, who demanded he moved the action back by 150 years, distance lending enchantment and therefore reducing the challenge to a contemporary audience. So many productions do the very same thing – keep things in ‘period’, allowing us to tut at the tragedy of the tale and the folly of the characters, and perhaps delight in some colourful costumes, without being forced to look at ourselves too closely. Tom Cairns’ production, with Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costume designs, goes some if not all the way towards achieving Verdi’s contemporary challenge. The time period is non-specific, but clearly closer to the present, and the costumes, particularly in the party scenes, draw on all kinds of influences, as one might expect from contemporary fashion, making it feel current and familiar. The darkness and sparseness of the design strips away much of what normally distances us from the personal, making this appropriately more uncomfortable than the run of the mill Traviatas

Cairns keeps things simple and uncluttered, concentrating on the relationships and the psychology of proceedings, avoiding distraction from the core action, the two set-piece party scenes being the only moments of extravagance. Even here, the chorus (on fine form) is slightly claustrophobically constrained by the towering walls of Bechtler’s slowly revolving set. Bechtler’s design limits colour to occasional splashes, such as Violetta’s red cloak, or the green baize of the card tables at Flora’s party. But it is Peter Mumford’s lighting design that lifts all of this to another level, with Act 3 opening on a deathbed scene with almost glowing red and blue material, straight out of a Renaissance painting.

The production has struggled to find consistently secure casting since its 2014 debut. However, colleagues here found both casts in the 2017 Festival added a missing dimension to the production. Would Glyndebourne succeed once again with their new cast for this year’s tour? Well, possibly not entirely. A very late cast change has replaced Fabrizio Paesano as Alfredo, with Emanuele D’Aguanno for the first four performances, and Luis Gomes taking over for the remainder of the run. D’Aguanno performed the role in four performances on the 2014 tour, whilst this will be Gomes’ Glyndebourne debut.

Armenian soprano Mané Galoyan gave us an emotionally intense and touchingly fragile Violetta. She sang with bright, if not overly full, tone and precise control, which allowed her to portray fragility in some beautiful pianissimo singing. Even at her opening party in Act 1, she is clearly not the hostess in control, with her vulnerability already evident, and Galoyan convincingly managed the gradual unravelling of her battle with her illness. D’Aguanno’s Alfredo was initially rather underpowered, struggling to rise above an admittedly weighty orchestral sound. His Act 2 cabaletta went off the rails at its conclusion although, after the interval, the strength in his delivery picked up, and by Act 3, he established better balance and a closer rapport with Galoyan, making their final duet genuinely touching. Noel Bouley played Giorgio Germont straight down the line, willing us to have sympathy with his dilemma, and his rich baritone was authoritative and highly convincing. But Violetta’s response to his remorse, interpreted in the surtitle here as “Too late, but thank you,” was a telling caution against complicity in the father’s actions. Ultimately, it was Galoyan who stole the show with her emotionally convincing portrayal of a woman brought down not just by ill health, but by society’s need to squash her transgression. 

Not a production for everyone, particularly anyone just wanting to enjoy Verdi’s sumptuous score and some familiar arias, but if you want a Traviata that goes some way towards unpicking our fascination for and our complicity in this tale of the clash between transgression and society’s norms, then this could be for you. As Cairns says, “A lot of things are still not quite as accepted as you think they might be. Or they are accepted as long as they don’t come over your doorstep.”