Even we Verdi enthusiasts experience something of a heavy tread as we wend our way to yet another Traviata at the Royal Opera House. Richard Eyre’s classic production is revived for the thirteenth time since its 1994 première launched Angela Gheorghiu into operatic stardom. La Gheorghiu is here at the moment (playing the diva… in Tosca), but she’d do well to sidle into a box to catch this latest Traviata revival. She may be surprised – as I was – at just how fresh the production feels. Any sense of routine was absent. Cobwebs were firmly blown away.

Venera Gimadieva (Violetta) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Venera Gimadieva (Violetta)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Eyre’s production is beautiful and – like Jonathan Kent’s Tosca – a banker for the House. It needs a special cast though, to excite the regulars, and it requires sensitive conducting and revival direction to keep it fresh. This evening scored on almost every count.

Take two weaknesses, one inherent in the production, the other in the opera itself. Guests leaving Violetta’s party in Act I have to speedily descend two spiral staircases in Bob Crowley’s set which head below the stage. In just about every performance, pit/stage coordination tends to come adrift – often dramatically – as the chorus anxiously try to keep pace whilst departing. Not so here. Yves Abel, grasping the baton firmly, glued orchestra and chorus together at a dizzying tempo.

Luca Salsi (Germont) and Venera Gimadieva (Violetta) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Luca Salsi (Germont) and Venera Gimadieva (Violetta)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton
The second problem relates to Germont père’s scene at the end of Act II Scene 1. “Di Provenza il mar” is generally accepted as one of Verdi’s weakest arias among his mature operas, a pretty banal melody which holds up the action whilst allowing the baritone to show off his smooth legato. The cabaletta “No, non udrai rimproveri” – Germont’s instant regret at having struck his son for his obstinacy – is even weaker and many productions cut it entirely. Luca Salsi, making his Royal Opera debut, performed the scene as if he was auditioning for Rigoletto, with Shakespearean care for text and delivery. The second verse of his aria explored parlando and mezza voce qualities as he implored Alfredo to give up his scandalous life with Violetta and return to Provence. The cabaletta (after delivering a real slap across Alfredo’s face which caused a few intakes of breath among those of us anticipating a mere ‘stage slap’ which never connects) was just as fine. I’d even have welcomed its second verse. Credit to Salsi and to revival director Daniel Dooner for bringing this scene alive. A buzz rippled around the auditorium as we awaited the next scene… the sort of buzz that tells you something special has just happened.

Another debutant also caused a stir in that scene. I had missed Venera Gimadieva’s Violetta at Glyndebourne in 2014, but had heard she was an “Act I Violetta” – strong at the coloratura aspects of the role, a reputation seemingly confirmed by recent positive reports as Lucia di Lammermoor. Her Act I was indeed impressive, cut glass coloratura and superb intonation in “Sempre libera” and wonderful ease at the top. However, Gimadieva also has the lyric soprano qualities to tackle Act II convincingly. There was initial vehemence in her response to Salsi’s bullish Germont, but she collapsed to deliver a moving “Dite alle giovine” from the floor. In the final act, “Addio del passato” was hauntingly fragile.

Sarah Pring (Annina ) and Venera Gimadieva (Violetta) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Sarah Pring (Annina ) and Venera Gimadieva (Violetta)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton
If I remained dry-eyed, this was probably due to problems beyond her (and the Royal Opera’s) control. It was unfortunate that Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu was indisposed and Samuel Sakker bravely stepped from the ranks of the Jette Parker Young Artists to take on the role of Alfredo at short notice. A fast vibrato and tight top notes betrayed understandable nerves, though he grew in confidence as the evening went on, but Gimadieva seemed unnerved, tensing up in her scenes with him. It was the first time I’ve seen the baritone take the lead – vocally and dramatically – in the ensemble at Flora’s party.

Gimadieva was far stronger in her gripping encounter with Germont or her touching exchanges with Sarah Pring’s reassuring Annina (how many Violettas has she nursed here over the years?). It would be unfair to penalise this promising revival (three casts in the coming months) on the basis of a cast indisposition, so four stars are thoroughly earned.