Violetta Valery: glamorous courtesan? Not in Stockholm. In Kasper Holten’s staging of La traviata for the Swedish Royal Opera, Violetta is a hostess at a modern strip club, who struggles to keep clients paying and must hand over most of her tips to the proprietor (Flora). By Act III, when she has lost both Alfredo and the Baron, she is begging on the streets along with Annina.

Lana Kos (Violetta) and Daniel Johansson (Alfredo) © Emma Svensson | Royal Swedish Opera
Lana Kos (Violetta) and Daniel Johansson (Alfredo)
© Emma Svensson | Royal Swedish Opera

The theme here seems to be the interplay of materialism and the objectifying power of the male gaze. Even the female choristers are dressed as men for the party scenes, and they ogle, grope and throw money at scantily clad women. When Violetta becomes homeless, she positions her sleeping bag and cup of change in front of a shopping mall. Through the window, we see a glittering diamond necklace (perhaps a nod to Violetta’s accessories in traditional stagings) and an advertisement for the very luggage set Violetta used to own – with the legs of a model, in stockings and heels that resemble Violetta’s. Our heroine has been destroyed by a culture of desiring women, desiring things... and desiring women as things.

Vocally, Lana Kos is everything I could wish for in a Violetta. Her voice is huge, and it has a smooth, buttery texture that’s a pleasure to listen to. The coloratura sections in Act I sounded a little forced, but she got through them in pitch and time, with impressive top notes. She made some lovely expressive choices, with particularly devastating crescendos in “Addio del passato”. Unfortunately, Kos’ acting leaves something to be desired. She emotes a lot, but her overdrawn gestures and unsurprising decisions leave the impression of Victorian melodrama. Appropriate for La traviata, perhaps, but not for this modern production – particularly not when her co-stars are acting in a more nuanced and naturalistic style.

© Emma Svensson | Royal Swedish Opera
© Emma Svensson | Royal Swedish Opera

As Alfredo, Daniel Johansson shows off a strong and rough-sounding tenor voice. That quality adds excitement, especially in emotionally turbulent bits like “O mio rimorso”. Unfortunately, it sometimes prevents him from blending well with Kos’ larger but smoother sound. Dramatically, though, this couple has lots of chemistry. Alfredo’s complicated relationship with his father adds another interesting dimension to his character, which keeps him from being a stock figure of love, revenge and remorse.

Daniel Johansson (Alfredo) and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (Giorgio Germont) © Emma Svensson | Royal Swedish Opera
Daniel Johansson (Alfredo) and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (Giorgio Germont)
© Emma Svensson | Royal Swedish Opera
The most fascinating figure in Holten’s staging is Giorgio Germont. Alfredo’s controlling, Bible-thumping father is solidly sung and sternly acted by Vladimir Stoyanov. He has a way of crisply spitting out words (without losing the legato line) and flashing lightning from his eyes that makes him seem capable of anything. And he apparently is: as soon as Violetta keels over, he pushes Alfredo away, not even letting him bid farewell to her corpse. (There were even intimations that he may have bribed the doctor to poison her, but it wasn’t entirely clear.) His character’s rigidity and religiosity make sense of the plot in a modern context – of course he is desperate to separate Violetta and his son!

Under the guidance of Giampaolo Bisanti, the orchestra of the Royal Opera delivers an extreme reading of the score. In the Act I Prelude especially, fast tempi are break-neck and slower bits are drawn-out with suspense. The strings lay it on thick. Although the result is a tad camp, there’s no doubting Bisanti’s sense of dramatic timing. Act III, usually the most painfully drawn-out part of the opera, never drags. The sound balance between the singers and orchestra is also consistently excellent, though a few minor timing coordination issues plagued this opening night.

Overall, Holten’s production concept makes for gripping drama, even if it occasionally goes against the exact meaning of the text. In a world full of Traviatas, this one offers real novelty. Musically, this production has a perfectly cast trio of leads and a well-led orchestra. In spite of the uneven acting, this is definitely an opera worth seeing.