La traviata was, for Verdi, something of a manifesto piece: imagining the story as a social lesson for contemporary times, he wanted it placed in a contemporary setting (though the strict censorship of 1850s Venice initially foiled his aims). In an ironic twist of social history, while censorship has largely relaxed in the West, depicting La traviata as a truly contemporary story has become ever more difficult for modern directors. Changing social mores make it hard for this opera to keep any emotional resonance if transported to our own time; but, for Grange Park Opera, director Lindsay Posner has seen right to the emotional heart of this piece, and effectively translated it, to 1950s Hollywood. The effect is refreshing, elegant and largely believable (though the libretto’s continued references to Paris and Provence can feel a little dislocated as a result); while the power and intelligence of Claire Rutter’s portrayal of Violetta gives this production dark, harrowing depth.

Claire Rutter (Violetta) © Robert Workman
Claire Rutter (Violetta)
© Robert Workman

Verdi’s opera compresses the events of Violetta’s love and death so intensely that it all feels brutally short. As a result, his music is exquisitely, immediately powerful: almost like an annotation of pure emotion, constantly haunted by the idea that time is running out for this opera, as well as for its heroine. Richard Hudson’s highly stylised sets, crisply monochrome yet visually lavish with patterns, prints and textures in the costumes, fit this mood wonderfully. Tension is sternly held from the opening scene, a rooftop poolside bar over a sparkling Hollywood night, complete with ‘hunks in trunks’ and a silver palm tree, to the stark final image - a white bed, a black background, our first and only moment of colour Violetta’s blood, spattered on the floor. Combining simplicity, economy and sophistication, these sharp, slick sets are a treat in themselves, deftly lit by Paul Anderson.

Meanwhile, Lindsay Posner’s brilliant direction conjures all Verdi’s vicious storms of emotion. As soon as we see Violetta perched on her barstool, we know she is not a woman at ease with life. Chucking down cocktails and pills by the handful, Rutter’s Violetta seems to come to us via Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor: gorgeous, tormented, desperate for love, hovering on the verge of exploitation or madness. As she hovers on the diving board for “Sempre libera”, in all its desperate masochism, then staggers drunkenly away, we are left in no doubt that the empty life of glamour is not want she wants, but is all she feels she deserves. Later, “Amami, Alfredo” was absolutely shattering in its power. Searing to the emotional centre of the character, Rutter is the undoubted heart of this production, acting and singing with consummate skill. Her voice soars, thrills and confides with equal charm, full of glowing energy from first to last. As I watched her, the tears were rolling down my face. Above all, Rutter’s Violetta fears Alfredo’s love as much as she wants it. Lindsay Posner’s excellent decisions all seem to come straight from the music, as does all the movement (coordinated by Nikki Woollaston): we are presented with a strong, coherent rendering from first to last.

Claire Rutter (Violetta) and Damiano Salerno (Germont père) © Robert Workman
Claire Rutter (Violetta) and Damiano Salerno (Germont père)
© Robert Workman

Marco Panuccio has a real sense of reach and depth in his voice. In his very first phrases, I was unsure of Panuccio, but his initially tentative Alfredo blossomed into a tender, devoted, passionate lover, which works perfectly. The emotional intensity crackles in the first scene between Alfredo and his father, as Alfredo shrugs off the unwanted hand of consolation with a genuinely teenage gesture. Panuccio’s “Parigi, o cara” is bewitching and heartrending; his love for Violetta utterly believable from first to last.

Damiano Salerno took some time warming into his character as Germont père, but gradually become more and more moving: we are left with a real sense of both his longing for his son, and the terrible emotional devastation he has caused.  His “Di Provenza” brimmed with passionate paternal yearning, and his repentance in the final scene was profoundly sad.

Olivia Ray is elegant and vivacious as Flora, singing with lovely tone and acting with smart precision. Her lover, the Marquis d’Obigny, is the excellent Christopher Jacklin. Timothy Dawkins plays the Hollywood mogul to perfection as Baron Douphol, complete with shades and a distinct air of menace. Matthew Stiff’s Dr Grenvil is a doleful and calm physician. Alberto Sousa is always animated as Gaston, making the most of a small role. Gianluca Marciano conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra with precision and warmth; though occasionally it did sound to me as though the timing faltered slightly, I do not think it was Marciano’s fault.

In the final, tragic death scene, Rutter was the angriest Violetta I have ever seen; and it seemed to me that, inside her furious lines, we have some of Verdi’s own anger at death, specifically at the loss of his young wife and two small children in infancy, so many years earlier. Watching Rutter, I was reminded irresistibly of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Yet, only a few bars later, she sings that she will be praying for Alfredo and his new wife in heaven. Harrowing, spellbinding, unforgettable.

****1