Verdi never met Marie Duplessis, for she died five months before the composer’s first visit to Paris, but he was deeply touched by her fate, to be related through Alexandre Dumas fils’ classic novel La dame aux camélias. Verdi and his mistress, Giuseppina Strepponi, rubbed shoulders with the same circles as Marie and her clientele; indeed, they were subject of the same sort of Parisian gossip. La traviata, based on Marie’s story, was his only opera with a contemporary setting, so a modern update such as Tom Cairns’ for Glyndebourne seems fitting. Now starting its tour proper, the production features svelte costumes and sets, yet – unlike Verdi’s response to Marie’s fate – Violetta’s tale left me entirely unmoved.

Magdalena Molendowska (Annina) and Irina Dubrovskaya (Violetta) © Clive Barda
Magdalena Molendowska (Annina) and Irina Dubrovskaya (Violetta)
© Clive Barda

The staging is curiously bland. Hildegard Bechtler’s abstract set consists of a couple of curved walls, one quilted, the other austere, which create a cramped space for the opera’s two party scenes. In between these walls, we see blurry projections of red curtains (bringing to mind Peter Konwitschny’s ENO co-production) and a garden landscape for Violetta’s country retreat of Act II. Cairns’ direction is blurry too. Each scene opens with Violetta lying prone on her bed, whether post-coital or predicting her death isn’t clear. Nor is it obvious why she dies. She faints, but there’s not so much as a cough or splutter. In Act I, she shows a fondness for booze, refusing Annina’s offer of water for another glass of the hard stuff. Wait. Annina? In Act I? Cairns has Magdalena Molendowska’s maid present in every scene, which might have been developed into something more interesting, but merely puzzles. Who on earth would take their maid to a party? (If it’s for medical care, then she’s incredibly slow off the mark in the Act II party.) Having Violetta’s “È strano!” recitative and the following aria/ cabaletta as confession to Annina seriously undermines the vulnerability and giddy joy Violetta should be expressing at this point.

Cairns' direction works best in the party scene, populated by a refreshingly youthful chorus and sexy young gypsies engaging in a raunchy round of blind man’s buff. He also has Germont père as a brutal bully, who you could imagine resorted to violence in bringing up Alfredo. However, by Act III, where Violetta is surprisingly mobile for someone at death’s door, we’re past caring about her fate… as are the other characters who slink off to leave her to die alone.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

Unfortunately, the performance was curiously bland too. This could have been down to a different trio in the lead roles from those who featured in the tour’s opener down on Glyndebourne’s home turf. There was precious little chemistry between Natasha Jouhl’s Violetta and Emanuele D’Aguanno’s Alfredo. Jouhl is a magnetic actress, vivacious and devil-may-care in the opening scene, yet D’Aguanno never seemed that attracted to her. Vocally, his tenor sounded pinched, lacking Italianate juice; phrases in “De' miei bollenti spiriti” were clipped short.

After a “Sempre libera” which found her struggling with coloratura and intonation, Jouhl emerged more strongly later on. Hers is a soprano with a hard edge at times, but she uses this well to portray a believable character. Her dignity in response to Evez Abdulla’s bull-in-a-china-shop Germont was touching and she delivered a beautifully sung “Addio, del passato” in the final act. However, Jouhl was consistently behind the beat, at its most noticeable in the Act II ensemble, where every phrase of “Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core” was late. Perhaps this will be ironed out in the run, although she is only granted two more performances before Irina Dubrovskaya returns to the tour.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

Abdulla’s gritty baritone and Slavic snarl were quite well suited to Cairns’ vision of Germont. Of the minor characters, Eddie Wade’s Baron Douphol was nicely full of pent-up aggression and Lauren Easton was a sparky Flora in both party scenes. Conductor David Afkham was at his best in these party scenes too, injecting vitality into the playing of the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra. Elsewhere, Afkham pulled around the score like plasticine, often dragging it out uncomfortably. The two-tiered Woking pit didn’t help, raising the first violins (unable to disguise their occasional boredom) and cellos to audience level, while woodwinds were recessed. The best solo playing came from a liquid clarinet as Violetta composes her letter to Alfredo in Act II. Choral contributions were strong.

Essentially, there’s nothing greatly wrong with Cairns’ staging. I can imagine that, if cast with a stronger central trio, it could work well. The very best Traviatas can make you cry in Act II. Here, sad to report, even Act III left me dry-eyed.