“È strano!” – “How curious!” – murmurs Violetta in the last moments of La traviata, on the sudden absence of pain before her final death throes. Two years ago, when this controversial production by Peter Konwitschny was first seen at English National Opera, I was completely knocked sideways by it. Could it deliver the same emotional blow to the solar plexus this time around? Strangely, it left me completely unmoved. How curious indeed. Ideas that initially seemed bold now risked irritation on repetition. If you haven’t seen it before, there’s a fair chance you’ll be bowled over by it. (Perhaps you should stop reading now and avoid the inevitable spoilers…)
Konwitschny’s approach is brave and bold. He strips away much of the opera – both the music and the traditional stage trappings – and presents it without a single interval, coming in shorter than the whole of Act III of Mastersingers! Musically, I can cope with the losses – the gypsy and matador choruses in Act II, the off-stage carnival, Germont père’s cabaletta (one of Verdi’s weaker inspirations). The lack of an interval also maintains dramatic intensity. However, other ideas have grown tiresome. The continual peeling back and drawing of curtains – the only feature in Johannes Leiacker’s set – irritates, especially when the characters pretend to draw curtains which are no longer there. Konwitschny’s treatment of Germont père as a bully is valid, but introducing the mute figure of his daughter impairs his argument that Alfredo’s affair with Violetta could cost his daughter her impending marriage. Mademoiselle Germont is in her early teens at best, costumed in beret, spectacles and a raincoat and is unlikely to be dashing up the aisle for some time. She is merely a pawn in Germont’s game and it seems incredible that Violetta plays along. Would she also scare Germont by threatening to turn a gun upon herself? Doubts like these kept creeping in.
The use of the auditorium is miscalculated. Alfredo sings his off-stage contribution to “Sempre libera” from the stalls, as do the other characters in the finale, leaving Violetta to meet her fate alone on stage. The distancing effect is compromised by the awkwardness of Alfredo having to negotiate a route along the front row of punters.
For this revival, the casting is identical from last time except for the role of Violetta. American soprano Elizabeth Zharoff, making her UK debut, does a valiant job in a production where she is barely off-stage and has no respite between acts. “Sempre libera” (Let me live the life I want) saw her attack the coloratura almost angrily. Her vibrato is quite marked and her diction indistinct, requiring recourse to surtitles which should be redundant. However, “Addio del passato” (It’s over, all these memories) was affecting and her acting was a strength, especially when she discarded her wig in the final scene, finally revealing the ‘true’ Violetta beneath the public façade.
Ben Johnson returns as the bookish, cardigan-clad Alfredo, sounding small of voice on the vast Coliseum stage, but with fine diction. His Alfredo would never earn a second glance from Violetta… but then that is Konwitschny’s point: Violetta is desperate for someone different to the predatory chorus which hounds her, mocking her illness and lapping up Alfredo’s denouncement of her in Act II, knives and forks at the ready to devour the gossip (the ENO Chorus sings with its customary gusto). Alfredo is the antithesis to that world, but is hardly a credible romantic figure.
The best singing of the night came from Anthony Michaels-Moore as Germont, his warm baritone resolute in confronting Violetta, then softening gradually through his encounter. “Di Provenza il mar” (What has turned your heart away?) was remarkable for the way the second verse was delivered in a hushed piano, shocked at the way Alfredo has finally stood up to him.
Roland Böer kept things lively in the pit, earning a keen response from the orchestra, but a few co-ordination problems in places. Minor roles were confidently taken, although Valerie Reid’s Annina never gets the stage time required in Act III to build an affecting relationship with Violetta. Although we spend longer with Zharoff’s Violetta – nearly the whole evening – I never felt I truly got to know her. Maybe that’s why I remained dry-eyed to the end… or perhaps it really is a case of lightning failing to strike twice.
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