With Verdi’s La traviata, the Royal Opera has a simple formula. Take a straightforward, uncontroversial production, find three singers sufficiently at the top of their game to be box office draws, and let Verdi’s magic do the rest – after all, it’s an opera that has everything: melody, pathos and searing social commentary that was well ahead of its time. The formula has been running with Richard Eyre’s production for twenty years, and judging by last night at Covent Garden, it shows little sign of faltering.

The Act 1 <i>Brindisi</i>: Diana Damrau as Violetta and Francesco Demuro as Alfredo © 2014 ROH/Catherine Ashmore
The Act 1 Brindisi: Diana Damrau as Violetta and Francesco Demuro as Alfredo
© 2014 ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Violetta was sung by Diana Damrau, recent winner of the Female Opera Singer of the Year award. Damrau’s vocal technique is nothing short of astounding, most particularly her control of dynamics: she can sing a note at any volume level from the softest to full throttle, moving between volume levels. All the while, her timbre is clear and attractive, whether on a held high note or on gymnastic coloratura. It’s a voice which makes an impression.

Vocally, Francesco Demuro was well matched to Damrau as Violetta’s lover Alfredo. His voice is also clear and bright; his diction is impeccable and his phrasing elegant and open. Both he and Damrau sang their roles with a definite bel canto feel, as opposed to the fuller and more dramatic style adopted by some.

Act 2: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio and Diana Damrau as Violetta © 2014 ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Act 2: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio and Diana Damrau as Violetta
© 2014 ROH/Catherine Ashmore
But for me, vocal honours of the evening went to Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Giorgio Germont. The emotional core of the opera – the point at which the tragedy really starts – is in Act II Scene 1, in which Germont confronts first Violetta and then his son. A bit of background: when Verdi wrote La traviata, he was living in sin with Giuseppina Strepponi (whom he later married), much to the disgust of his father and the local bourgeoisie. Germont is by no means a copy of Verdi’s father any more than Violetta is a copy of Strepponi, but the sanctimonious disdain with which Germont treats Violetta and the dignified way in which she responds ("I, sir, am a woman and in my own home") are ciphers for the way Strepponi was treated, and every bar of the music drips with Verdi’s anger. Hvorostovsky’s performance was dazzling, bringing the whole scene to life. By its end, I was filled with hatred for the man, for all the silver tongued, melodious, full-bodied beauty of his voice.

Richard Eyre’s setting still looks fine, especially the opulent party scene of Act I and the gambling scene of Act II Scene 2 with its gypsies and matadors dancing on a giant green baize card table. The orchestra, under Dan Ettinger, gave a sprightly performance, with clean sound and good accenting.

And yet, with all this talent on show and all these good individual features, neither Act I nor Act III really caught my imagination and made me believe. It’s a little hard to put my finger on exactly why, but here’s my best attempt. At many points in the score, Ettinger chose pacing or accenting that are different from the way you often hear it. For the most part, nothing sounded actually wrong – just unusual – and the orchestra and chorus were fully in sync with their conductor. The soloists, however, were not: it seemed to me that there were several points of slight hesitation or departures from absolute togetherness. I’m also not sure that Ettinger or revival director Daniel Dooner was able to really bring his stars together dramatically. These were fantastic individual performances, and while the vocal blending was superb, I didn’t really feel the required chemistry on stage, and it was only in Act II that I was truly drawn into the stage performance and suspended all disbelief.

Judging by the applause both at curtain calls and at the stars’ entrances, a great deal of the audience were in the house last night for the chance to see Damrau and Hvorostovsky. They will not have been disappointed: these were performances of the very highest quality by two very fine singers, with Demuro all but matching them. I suspect that familiarity with the conductor and each other will increase through the run: if they get the chemistry right, this will truly be a revival to savour.