Majestic, canonical, searingly intimate: Verdi’s masterpiece is the ultimate opera blockbuster, reigning supreme globally as our most-performed opera of today. Given that immense performance tradition, La traviata is always in need of agile, intelligent reworkings like Longborough’s intriguing new production, otherwise it would just become one big, stultified re-enactment process. Daisy Evans’ incisive update makes Violetta Valéry a Hollywood filmstar in the late Fifties, taking inspiration from the celebrated, yet tortured life of Marilyn Monroe. While this has certainly been done before (memorably by Grange Park Opera in 2014), Evans takes an innovative metatheatrical approach, with parts of the opera actually taking place during studio filming, where Baron Douphol is the all-powerful director.

Evans actively engages Piave’s libretto in her idea: a clapboard (alongside deft lighting by Jake Wiltshire) signals the ‘action’ and ‘cut’ moments of a biopic of Marie Antoinette, and other films, in which Violetta is the star, allowing Evans to highlight the public and private worlds which clash in such a painful, and ultimately devastating, way in Violetta’s tragic life. Later, Alfredo ensures the camera films his explosive public tantrum at Violetta’s supposed heartlessness. This opera depends fundamentally on the dangerous psychological tension between outward show and inner suffering, and Evans’ concept clarifies that contrast: the ease in which some lines translate to ‘performance’ is fascinating, while Flora’s “party” becomes Douphol’s next film (a Surrealist piece full of gypsies and matadors, sadly the production’s one weak moment, its complex choreography rather under-rehearsed).

Violetta begins surrounded by an adoring, bossy entourage who quickly fade away as her career plummets, sabotaged by her own despair, though her long-suffering assistant Annina (a dramatically direct, appealing Jenny Stafford) and her personal physician Dottore Grenvil (a tender, emotive Timothy Dickinson) never leave her side, present in every scene. Samantha Price’s Flora, on the other hand, seems very much a fairweather friend, openly angling to get Douphol’s interest for herself. Loren Elstein’s design plays with the artifice of a film set, using the pastel colours and clean lines of the late Fifties: though rolling cameras are often on stage, Elstein engineers an openly manufactured set change to produce the couple’s romantic Act 2 hideaway. The obvious flimsiness of their pretend beach house points to the doomed fragility of their temporary happiness, though it is also the only moment in the opera that Violetta seems serene – until Germont shatters her illusions.  

This production bears characteristic Evans hallmarks: putting topspin on a familiar libretto to touch raw contemporary nerves; strong integration of the chorus, in fine voice playing cast and film crew; and drug use, a key preoccupation in Evans’ recent interpretations of Mozart and Wagner. Here Violetta’s real illness is her anxiety, palpable from her earliest moments as she trembles and swallows pills whenever not performing; as misery overwhelms her, Violetta's self-medication becomes increasingly brutal. When she says to Germont that she will die without Alfredo, it is a statement of resigned self-awareness, even intent, not a diagnosis. After Alfredo’s humiliating rejection, Violetta embarks on a suicidal spiral into drink and drugs, revealed by flashes of silent action during the Act 3 prelude. When he finally arrives, she has already overdosed. Her panicked cry to Annina to fetch Grenvil back, “I want to live”, is heartbreaking. We all know it’s too late.

Anna Patalong is a truly superb Violetta, her fluid, lyrical soprano both musically glorious and a true dramatic instrument. Patalong’s skilful acting channels Sophia Loren with a cocktail of sex appeal and raw vulnerability, capable of both enraged hysteria and remarkable stillness. Her “Gioir!” is a cry of rage, from a soul antagonised by the heartlessness of a world which offers her endless meaningless pleasure while denying her true love. Peter Gijsbertsen’s burnished tenor matches Patalong beautifully: his passionate, idealistic Alfredo is a slightly geeky young actor who finds increasing strength and determination in their shared love, yet falls spectacular victim to immaturity in a deeply moving performance.

Apart from the gaucheness of the party scene, one other disappointment is that Evans seems altogether less interested in the older male characters, who each come across as stolid blocks to Violetta’s happiness. This is a pity, for Eddie Wade is an accomplished actor capable of making Baron Douphol far more interesting; the Weinstein reference is clear, but surely now is the perfect time to question the inner emptiness of a man who forces intimacy by money or influence? Mark Stone’s Giorgio Germont is powerfully sung – occasionally overpoweringly so – but again, rather two-dimensional, his role as a protective father of an unseen daughter (so vital to Verdi) barely explored. Conductor Thomas Blunt occasionally found his way into – and out of – some tangled timing. Nevertheless, the vibrant relevance of Evans’ feminist analysis of Violetta makes this a Traviata well worth seeing.