Kasper Holten was right. The affable former Director of Opera always defended yet another run of Verdi's La traviata at Covent Garden by arguing that for every regular operagoer jaded by seeing it dozens of times, there would be visitors to the House seeing it for the first time. It's the perfect opera to start with. Richard Eyre's staging is a classic, beautifully costumed and with stylish sets. The plot is easy to grasp, much of the music is familiar. And it allows the soprano singing Violetta just enough space to put her own stamp on the role.

Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Two years ago, Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanova was thrust into her Royal Opera debut slightly earlier than billed. Five days before her planned house debut (Musetta in La bohème), Bakanova found herself stepping in as Violetta at short notice for an indisposed Sonya Yoncheva. By all accounts it was a triumph, enough for the powers that be to offer her a run of five performances this month. Bakanova fared well, better suited to the vocal demands of Act 1 than several recent sopranos here. Hers is not a large voice, but her coloratura and trills were clean, and she placed the high As in Violetta's response to Alfredo's “Un dì felice” very deliberately. She has a keen dramatic sense; hearing Alfredo off-stage really knocked the stuffing out of her. Intonation was variable, however, the high E flat in “Sempre libera” falling a little short. 

Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta) and Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta) and Atalla Ayan (Alfredo)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Bakanova's diminutive figure and the brittleness of her soprano helped her cut an affecting figure later on, with “Addio del passato” affectingly delivered. Up against a burly-voiced Germont in Act 2, Bakanova's “Dite alla giovine” was touchingly fragile, even more so considering conductor Maurizio Benini almost dragged it to a standstill. Benini had a very mixed night, the pendulum swinging dramatically between too slow and too fast, although at least he kept chorus and orchestra in synch during the guests' tricky exit after Violetta's party. In Act 3, Bakanova cut a doomed figure where the only directorial miscalculation is still the silly lap of honour Violetta is made to complete before collapsing to her death.

Nicola Alaimo (Germont *père) and Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Nicola Alaimo (Germont *père) and Atalla Ayan (Alfredo)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Atalla Ayan was a stylish Alfredo, a role he's recently sung at the Metropolitan Opera. His tenor is bright, with a good top apart from an ill-advised interpolated high C at the end of his cabaletta. He isn't the most natural actor, with a tendency to give a right knee lunge to prepare for big notes. Making his house debut, Nicola Alaimo (nephew of Simone) sang Germont père with a grainy baritone as solid as his presence. Revival director Barbara Lluch never quite got the Violetta—Germont scene to spark into life, hampered by Alaimo spending too much of the duet seated. However, he coped admirably with Benini's sluggish tempi for “Pura siccome un angelo” and “Di Provenza”, saved by admirable breath control.

Smaller roles were characterfully taken. Jeremy White blustered well as the Marquis d'Obigny, Angela Simkin's sparky Flora quick to rail against him. David Shipley plumbed the depths of Dr Grenvil's grave prognosis in Act 3 and Gyula Nagy's Baron Douphol could scarcely disguise his contempt. Best of all was Sarah Pring's sympathetic, attentive Annina. When my number's up, she'll be top of my list of carers, please.  

 

The 4 July performance (with Corinne Winters as Violetta) will be screened free to 13 outdoor venues across the UK.