The Royal Opera House is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Richard Eyre’s production of La traviata. Much admired for its sets, movement and direction it has been revived nearly every season since its unveiling in 1994. This round of nineteen performances runs into late March, with five Violettas, eight Germonts (four each of père et fils), and three conductors. Verdi’s score apart, the venerable production will be the main constant. So it’s as well that score and production are indestructible, and this first cast did both justice. The leads varied from routinely excellent to occasionally sublime, and there was that surprisingly large number of small named characters in Traviata, made much easier to cast by the existence of the ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme contributing three members, including the excellent Stephanie Wake-Edwards as Flora.

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Violetta) and cast © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Hrachuhí Bassénz (Violetta) and cast
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Our Violetta Valéry was Armenian soprano Hrachuhí Bassénz, who made a strong impression on the audience, certainly by the end. She began rather tentatively for a belle of the ball. True, Violetta has tuberculosis and keeps fainting, but the upper register showed a fragility of the wrong sort. Her duet with Alfredo saw things improve, though still those fioriture might have been a bit more light-headed and flirtatious. Her cabaletta though reminded us that she sings the Queen of the Night, and she really nailed that (bogus) high E flat at the end – and then took a couple of curtain calls to celebrate. It was a reminder that one of the most performed of all operas is still a hugely demanding sing for its lead soprano, not least in its first half-an-hour.

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Violetta) and Sarah Pring (Annina) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Hrachuhí Bassénz (Violetta) and Sarah Pring (Annina)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

But just when you thought this was only a night for canary fanciers, Verdi’s drama gripped. Enter Giorgio Germont, trailing with him the oppressive bourgeois hypocrisy of 19th century France. He makes Violetta “see reason”, renounce her love for (his) propriety’s sake, and Bassenz seized her moment. It’s not Violetta’s death that is tragic so much as the death of her hopes, and Verdi gives his soprano a sublime sacrificial statement in “Dite alla giovine” and Bassenz was slow, soft, poised, and incomparably poignant. Now the fragility was exactly the right sort - emotionally fragile, because vocally superb. The rest of the performance seemed to take wing from here.

Simon Keenlyside (Germont) and Liparit Avetisyan (Alfredo) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Simon Keenlyside (Germont) and Liparit Avetisyan (Alfredo)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Germont père was Simon Keenlyside, in command of his role and its notes as ever, if sometimes rather gritty in tone – not inappropriate for his stern part in this scene, and he was carefully supportive when he sang in duet with Bassenz. Alfredo was another Armenian, tenor Liparit Avetisyan, fresh of voice and ardent of manner. How nice in the brindisi to hear a tenor observe that unlikely marking for a drinking song con grazia, leggerissimo. Again the rapid alternation of forte and pianissimo in “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” brought out the excitability and impulsiveness of Alfredo’s character. And Avetisyan did well to ignore conductor Daniel Oren’s frantic hand waving whenever his music became passionate – a dangerous gesture to use for tenors! That apart though, Oren was his usual reliable self – the chorus and orchestra performed well for him. None more so last night than the principal clarinet, whose exquisite solo in Violetta’s letter-writing scene was almost vocal, telling us all we need to know about that letter’s likely impact on Alfredo. And indeed on Violetta in writing it – the vocal floodgate of Bassenz’s stunning “Amami, Alfredo” was the real message, not the written one. Violetta follows that with her disappearing act. It will be a while before this splendid production – for which Richard Eyre took a deserved curtain call – follows suit.

****1