A glittering high society romance. A sordid tale of a prostitute born in the gutter and dying alone and painfully. A bel canto charmer, packed with glorious tunes. A scathing attack on Victorian sexual hypocrisy. Verdi's La Traviata is all of these things: find in it what you will.

Party time in Act I: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, Ji Hyun Kim as Gastone © Royal Opera House 2011 / Catherine Ashmore
Party time in Act I: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, Ji Hyun Kim as Gastone
© Royal Opera House 2011 / Catherine Ashmore

Richard Eyre's production for the Royal Opera is a hardy old soldier. It's well travelled around the globe and hasn't had much time to rest in its seventeen years (it's old enough to get a driving licence). It wears its age well, and there's something in the production for everyone. If you came to La Traviata for a dose of Parisian glamour, you got it in the party scenes: the costumes are bel époque rather than early Victorian and Bob Crowley's sets are lavishly eye-catching but not over-complicated. If you came looking for the contrast between the glitz of the parties and the squalor of Violetta's deathbed, you saw it in the spartan room and the pillows bloodstained from her coughing.

Most of all, if you came for the singing, you were in for a treat: La Traviata demands three great singers, and the Royal Opera provided them. Piotr Beczala sang Alfredo with warmth, lyricism, tenderness and no apparent effort - the notes seem to flow out of him on their own. Simon Keenlyside was equally lyrical: his voice has power and remarkable timbre to depict the stentorian father figure. But the evening belonged, as it should, to Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, who gave an extraordinary performance. The late Joan Sutherland, arguably Covent Garden's greatest Violetta, said that everything was based on technique. Pérez displayed complete mastery of her voice, with technical confidence at a level which freed her to do amazing things. She sang the high powered coloratura passages with aplomb, but what really amazed me was her ability to hit a high note in the softest pianissimo without a hint of a wobble, even after a fast glissando. La Traviata's third act is a difficult one to bring off: it's virtually impossible to convince an audience that you're dying of tuberculosis while singing loudly enough to fill a two thousand seat opera house. Pérez came as close as you can get, keeping her voice very quiet but with crystal clear articulation for most of the act, with the occasional outbursts of "excitement and foolish gaiety" that were documented in tuberculosis sufferers as long ago as 250 AD (as explained in Christopher Wintle's programme note). It's sobering to note that this is supposedly the "B" cast - I find it hard to imagine that the "A" cast can have been that much better.

You will have been least excited by the production if you came looking for the morality play. Pérez did a fine job of representing the extremes of Violetta's character, from hardened woman-of-the-world to delicate flower, but both Beczala and Keenlyside were simply too nice. Beczala was marvellous as the romantic hero - his second act love paean Dei miei bollenti spiriti was quite heart-melting - but somehow, I can't see him as mad, bad and dangerous to know. Keenlyside came across as noble and misunderstood rather than as a vile, self-satisfied hypocrite who only repents when repentance poses no danger to his cosy world and is far too late to help in any way. Revival director Rodula Gaitanou seemed woefully short of ideas in the Act II country house scene, in which Keenlyside and Pérez shuffled in endless circles around the long table, with little apparent interaction. Things did improve by the end of Act II, though: the climactic scene in which Alfredo throws his winnings into Violetta's face packed plenty of punch, and Act III (which can so often drag) was genuinely filled with dramatic pathos.

Conductor Patrick Lange gave a precise but somewhat restrained rendering. It's a score with plenty of opportunity for lush expressiveness: Lange passed up most of those opportunities, choosing relatively slow tempi and preferring to give space to the singers than to overpower them with orchestral colour. I can't quite make up my mind whether to be thrilled at how much it helped me enjoy the singing or disappointed at missing some of the joyousness of the orchestral accompaniment. A bit of both, I suppose.

For a production so venerable of an opera played so often, this one stands up remarkably well. It gives a good reminder of why La Traviata is such a well loved opera, and the outstanding trio of main singers make it well worth seeing.