La traviata is a rather conventional choice for a season opener, but with the right production and performers this much-loved Verdi warhorse can certainly be a great success. Although Ferenc Anger's new production was promising, with a daringly grim concept and memorable visuals, the opening night was not without its faults.

Updated to a contemporary setting, Ferenc Anger's production presents Violetta as a plaything of the upper class, society’s attitude towards her being characterized by voyeuristic curiosity and cold detachment. Her life (and death) is but a spectacle for their amusement. The most striking example of this relationship is exhibited in the Act II finale when Violetta, struck down by Alfredo, sang the entire finale lying on her side, left unaided on the ground by her former friends as they slowly backed away, retreating behind the glass walls of the room and remaining there for Act III to witness her death. Anger’s view of the relationship between Violetta and Alfredo is rather bleak as well: no exception from the other men, Alfredo demands Violetta’s love from her just like everyone else, forcing his affections (and during “Sempre libera”, himself) upon her and turning to jealous rage when the woman whom he feels entitled to abandons him for another.

While the ideas behind this production are compelling, their execution (especially regarding the Violetta-Alfredo relationship) disappointed. Strong Personenregie was lacking throughout, leaving the viewer cold at the most heart-wrenching scenes, with the singers falling back on park-and-bark style delivery and stumbling around the stage when they wished to convey distress. Consequently, motives remained unclear, especially Violetta’s – why would she sacrifice herself for a man whose approach she was vehemently rejecting? Similarly baffling was the appearance of two dancers dressed as Disney's Snow White and her Prince in the ballet choreographed to the chorus of fortune-tellers and the matadors in Act II, with no discernible connection to the text being sung or the plot of the opera.

While the directing felt wanting, Gergely Zöldy Z’s set design and highly effective use of lighting must be applauded: the metallic backdrop behind the glass walls and the vivid lights made for compelling images, setting the mood well for the party scenes, especially in the Act II confrontation (although the sofa dominating the almost empty room was reminiscent of Willy Decker staging).

If the production proved to be a mixed bag, so too did the musical performances. Singing the title role, Erika Miklósa dazzled with glass-shattering high notes and effortless coloratura, but while her voice still has a round, pleasant sound in the upper register and carries easily over the orchestra, it’s saddled with an unruly vibrato and loses warmth and volume in chest voice. She improved throughout the performance though, being at her strongest in Act III, genuinely touching in “Addio del passato”, but that was not quite enough to salvage a shaky performance.

If Anger’s idea was to have Alfredo come across as unpleasant and unsympathetic, then Péter Balczó's performance was well-delivered. An impressively strong lyric tenor, Balczó has a tendency to turn nasal in his upper register, and for most of the night his singing felt rather forced and bland, including a near crack at the end of “O mio rimorso”. Like Miklósa though, he miraculously found his footing in Act III, delivering some wonderfully sensitive singing in “Parigi, o cara”.

The dark, sonorous baritone of Alexandru Agache was the most pleasant voice (and his arias the aural highlight) of the evening, fittingly authoritative for the role of Germont père, but his performance was marred by inexpressive, unfelt delivery. Of the minor characters, András Kiss’ silky-voiced Grenvil, and András Káldi Kiss’ malicious Douphol impressed greatly.

Kicking off with a tame prelude, Pinchas Steinberg’s conducting was mostly languid, providing no more than adequate accompaniment to the singers and giving the HSO’s excellent orchestra little chance to shine, only really perking up for the crowd scenes to inject some much welcome vigour and tension into the music, with spirited contributions from the HSO Chorus. The occasional bursts of energy that seemed to characterize this performance were not enough for a truly effective opening night that packed a punch.