Glyndebourne’s production of operatic weepy La traviata left me dry-eyed when I saw it on tour back in 2014. I found the abstract setting cold and austere, the performances bland. Thankfully, I employed a caveat in the final paragraph: “Essentially, there’s nothing greatly wrong with Tom Cairns’ staging. I can imagine that, if cast with a stronger central trio, it could work well.” Et, voilà! The second cast of the summer (the first reviewed very favourably) saw the festival field three principals worthy of any major international opera house. The difference was palpable.

Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta) © Robbie Jack
Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta)
© Robbie Jack

Joyce El-Khoury sang a deeply affecting Violetta. This is the third production of Traviata in which I’ve seen her take the lead role (after David McVicar at WNO and Richard Eyre at the ROH) and it’s fascinating to chart the nuances both in her dramatic and vocal performances over the past five years. Her first encounter with Alfredo here is flirtatious, the enormity of what she’s about to embark upon not really hitting her until she hears his voice off-stage during “Ah, fors'è lui” when she absent-mindedly lets her bottle of Champagne drop to the floor. Germont père’s visit crushes her so much that she looked physically spent by the start of “Dite alla giovine”. The most telling moment came in the Act 2 party scene where, after Alfredo has humiliated her, she cannot bear anyone touching her, returning Douphol’s jewellery and shunning Germont’s hand of friendship. El-Khoury takes great risks in employing a wide range of vocal colours, from wine dark chest notes to the most feathery of pianissimos. The attack on the coloratura in “Sempre libera” was aggressive and hedonistic, her cry of “È tardi!” when she reads Germont’s letter in Act 3 full of anger. Here was a Violetta who refused to “go gentle into that good night” without a struggle.

Dimitri Platanias (Germont) and Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta) © Robbie Jack
Dimitri Platanias (Germont) and Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta)
© Robbie Jack

As Alfredo, Atalla Ayan impressed even more than his recent Royal Opera appearances. His lovely open tenor suits the naive young lover and here he wisely eschewed the top C at the end of his cabaletta. His petulant outburst at Flora’s party was convincing, having to be restrained by the guests from going even further. Barrel-chested Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias unleashed a glorious, rich sound as Germont which rolled around the house. There are few more juicy sounding Verdi baritones around, evidenced in a terrific “Di Provenza”, and if his acting isn’t especially involved, it’s not really required in this role. A neat idea here is Germont’s shocking miscalculation towards the conclusion of the duet when he tries to offer Violetta money, which she rejects, blurting out that she is dying… a punch to the stomach. The singers were well supported by a sympathetic London Philharmonic Orchestra under Stefan Soltesz, the wispy fragility of the strings especially fine in Verdi’s two preludes.

Act 1 party scene © Robbie Jack
Act 1 party scene
© Robbie Jack

The production still strikes me as chilly. Hildegard Bechtler’s sparsely furnished set – a tale of two curved walls, one metallic grey, the other quilted crimson – has all the charm of a corporate hotel, the cramped stage space in between turning the two parties into claustrophobic affairs. Cairns has the chorus in a predatory role, eavesdropping on Violetta and Alfredo in Act 1, while the party at Flora’s, with its very adult game of blind man’s buff, has sinister overtones. Each act opens with Violetta on a bed – is this the Act 3 Violetta looking back on her life? It’s never made clear.

Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) and Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta) © Robbie Jack
Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) and Joyce El-Khoury (Violetta)
© Robbie Jack

Cairns’ one interesting twist is the treatment of Violetta’s young maid, Annina (Eliza Safjan), who is present in both party scenes, clearly expressing her disapproval of her mistress’ lifestyle, but fiercely protective of her too. Violetta sings “Ah, fors'è lui” as a confessional to her and – in the end – it’s the maid who clings onto her last. Eventually though, Annina too slinks away into the background, leaving Violetta to die alone. Earlier, though, when Violetta hands Alfredo a portrait of herself in younger, healthier days (“Prendi, quest'è l'immagine”), El-Khoury and Ayan were most moving. Indeed, there was a truth, an honesty to their performances which transcended Cairns’ cold staging and may even have wrung a tear.