La Traviata has always been up close and personal. Its 1853 première was actually a critical failure, due to a revolutionary decision by Piave, Verdi’s librettist, to give the opera a contemporary setting – something which the Venetian audience had never seen before. Revived a year later, but this time in a Louis XIV setting, it was a sudden success. Clearly, the 1853 audience wasn’t ready to see their own reflection in opera; and Piave’s portrait of a dissipated, selfish society which ignores true virtue (and, tragically, true love) in favour of popularity and outward appearance, developed and extended by Verdi’s thrilling score, still cuts close to the bone even today.

Prudence Sanders (Violetta) & Christopher Jacklin (The Baron) © Christopher Tribble
Prudence Sanders (Violetta) & Christopher Jacklin (The Baron)
© Christopher Tribble

OperaUpClose have set their version in the 1920s, with some beautiful period costumes by Jonathan Lipman and a few prettily observed production details (Alfredo reads Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and The Damned; Katie Bellman’s well-designed interiors recall Art Nouveau; everyone drinks from cut crystal). It’s a big story on a very small scale, sung in Robin Norton-Hale’s own English version, which almost makes it feel like a parlour play set to music. The music itself is simply and powerfully rendered by a trio of piano (Elspeth Wilkes), clarinet (Sarah Douglas) and cello (William Rudge, who manfully even changed the scenery at one point before resuming his instrument). The trio distils the lines of Verdi’s thought with beautiful clarity; as something to compare to a fully orchestrated version, it is a fascinating and illuminating listen.

Verdi’s original cast of ten principals, plus sundry servants, dancers, guests, matadors, picadors and gypsies has dwindled to just five singers: some parts and characters are compressed, others are cut altogether (I’m afraid the gypsies didn’t make it). This puts a relentless focus on Alfredo and Violetta’s relationship, which gives the production its enviable intensity; but does rather edit out Verdi’s portrait of the sparkling, seductive and dissipated city, which is also part of La Traviata’s brilliance. Violetta’s “What’s going on in the city?” therefore came out as the incongruous question of a weary invalid, instead of the yearning link to Act I which it should be (contrasting the shallow beauty of Violetta’s former life with her sublime sacrifice for love). It is so pared down, I almost feel it would be fairer to call it “Scenes from La Traviata.” But it still works.

It is in Violetta’s final death scene that this production really comes together. The King’s Head Theatre has a pretty ungenerous acoustic – which is unfortunate. For too much of the opera, the singers tried to fight this by hurling their voices hard at the audience; but in Violetta’s death scene, suddenly, everyone dropped their volume by just two tiny notches, and the effect was immediately exquisite. I can imagine the temptation to “blast” only too well when singing into dead air, but in fact, a little restraint goes a long way, and the most magical musical moments in this production were always piano.

Prudence Sanders as Violetta was haunting when she renounced Alfredo: “Go to your daughter, tell her she’s free of me. I give her happiness, make sure she grasps it.” Her performance was compelling throughout, brittle and vulnerable at the right moments; in death, she was nothing short of superb. Christopher Jacklin had just the right amount of gentlemanly nastiness for the Baron, later a compassionate Doctor; his voice was excellent, and I only wish we could have heard more from him. David Durham had a real richness of tone as Germont, and performed a perfect volte-face from drunk debaucher to calculating political operator; the way these two roles combine in Norton-Hale’s version is clever and works well, highlighting the hypocrisy of polite society. Durham allowed Germont’s gradual realisation and regret to develop slowly and naturally in a sensitive, mature performance. Lawrence Olsworth-Peter was a frail, childlike Alfredo whose obsessive devotion to Violetta was palpable, as was his geeky immaturity: it’s not a way I’ve seen Alfredo played before, but it worked. Flora McIntosh was sensuous, sophisticated and strong as Violetta’s best friend Flora.

Robin Norton-Hale’s English libretto introduced a new idea – Germont père as a politican keen to avoid electoral embarrassment – which functions well, though I’m not sure how much it really adds overall: Piave hardly required improvement as well as translation. As a director, Norton-Hale has created a smooth, dynamic production which uses the small space to the fullest. The arch tone of the opening scene was nicely caught, and the chorus of weeping from the audience at the end was testament to the overall success of this highly charged, wonderfully raw, intimate show. They just need to tone it down a bit... to let Verdi’s music really, subtly get under our skin.