Jane McCulloch’s production of La Traviata is currently playing in the small Studio Theatre at RADA. The intriguing setting of Berlin, 1938, is rendered subtly, through wonderful 1930s costumes designed by the director, and references to Berlin life in McCulloch’s new translation. The strong company of singers are accompanied by light musical forces: a five-piece band led from the piano by Stephen Hose, including violin, viola, cello and clarinet. The production has a minimal set. Act I is set at a soirée in Violetta’s Berlin house, conveyed by a table of champagne glasses, a chaise longue, and a paravent. Act II, “a room in the country”, operates with similar furniture, and Flora’s Berlin house and the attic setting of the second half also uses a very similar stage layout. By stripping away the usual decadence that accompanies productions of this opera, McCulloch created an absorbing production with moving moments.

© Benjamin Eagolvea
© Benjamin Eagolvea

Belinda Evans, playing Violetta, embodied the role of the tragic heroine with conviction, bringing a moving vulnerability to the part. Her nuanced display of consumptive symptoms – subtly expressed by a stifled cough here and there – was one of the advantages of staging the production in such small surroundings: Evans never resorted to melodrama, often seen in many larger-scale productions, making us truly believe that Violetta does not suspect the seriousness of her condition. Her character’s shyness and fragility came across extremely well, while vocally she dazzled, delivering exquisite coloratura and wonderful phrasing, growing in confidence as the evening went on. Her love of revelry and partying was, however, underplayed – something which perhaps would have made us believe that she was truly reluctant to leave her hedonistic lifestyle, and that her love of Alfredo (played by a youthfully lovestruck Andrew Morris) was a truly involuntary force. Adam Johnston Miller, playing Alfredo’s father, Germont, provided a great vocal highlight of the evening: his rich and powerful baritone voice was a pleasure to hear, and he had great, threatening presence. Sarah Champion, playing Flora, also came across strongly, embodying the role of the vivacious hostess with great energy, and she possessed a powerful mezzo tone that I would like to hear more of in future.

One aspect of the casting was slightly problematic: Alfredo and Germont did not appear to be particularly far apart in age. Also, the similarity of the stage layout between acts made it difficult to place the action within the aforementioned settings, and I didn’t grasp some crucial plot details – such as the reasons why Alfredo left Violetta at his estate to settle her financial affairs. This was also not helped by the lack of a synopsis in the programme, making it harder for those less familiar with the opera’s plot to catch up in the interval. However, the idea of setting the production in pre-war Berlin is an interesting one, which was partially developed in the sparse setting of the RADA Studio black box theatre. The references to the German currency of “Marks”, the replacing of the offstage Paris Mardi Gras revellers at the end of the opera with unseen crowds hailing the Führer, and the Baron’s Nazi costume hinted at the possibilities that such a context might have on a larger budget, on a grander stage. The audience was required to use their imagination here – something I’m not averse to by any means. However, the lack of visual material overtly establishing “1938 Berlin” from the outset, while tasteful and subtle, meant that we were almost entirely reliant on the aural references to pre-war Germany, which came some way into McCulloch’s translation. It felt slightly as though McCulloch’s inventive and politicised re-imagining of Verdi’s opera was only partially realised: and it is something that I would love to see with the added visual aid of a larger set.

The use of a chamber ensemble to accompany the singers had advantages and disadvantages. While the wonderfully sensitive playing of the musicians meant that the singers did not have to strain to be heard over a large orchestra, the feel of the opera changes a great deal in this new form. Our proximity to the action and the audibility of every word makes us question the plot, and the motivation behind characters’ actions, more than Verdi intended. Perhaps, without the overwhelming aural and visual stimulus of grand opera, Verdi’s characters are exposed to a kind of psychological scrutiny that we would not usually subject them to. By turning La Traviata into a chamber opera, the effect is both absorbing and distancing, and McCulloch’s unusual setting raises some interesting questions. The naturalistic performances of the cast brought something new and exciting to Verdi’s opera, and the production made me want to listen again to the original, fully orchestrated version: after all, this is wonderful music and a moving story, performed with emotion and commitment by the company of Opera UK.