“Too much sex!” declared the gentleman sitting beside me following the première of Daniel Kramer’s new production of La traviata for English National Opera. Featuring not one but two different colours of nipple tassels, it is clear from the minute the curtain opens that this will not be your standard crinolined soirée. The two party scenes are certainly the high point of the production – Violetta’s stunning art deco salon is a mirrored funfair, complete with ball pit and miniature carousel. Its guests, in various states of undress, are clearly having the time of their lives. This carefree depravity is transformed into something far more sinister for Flora’s party, a fetishistic nightmare in leather and slashed black silk. In this sense, Kramer and his design team perfectly capture the superficiality and sadism that bring about Violetta’s success and downfall.

Lukhanyo Moyake (Alfredo), Aled Hall (Gastone) and Claudia Boyle (Violetta) © Catherine Ashmore
Lukhanyo Moyake (Alfredo), Aled Hall (Gastone) and Claudia Boyle (Violetta)
© Catherine Ashmore

Despite the entertainment value and striking imagery, the production is a surprisingly dull affair. Kramer seemed content to present a stand-and-deliver Traviata, with little in the way of characterisation. Most crucially, the interactions between the three central characters were woefully underdeveloped, completely missing the complex emotional holds these characters have on one another. Kramer’s few novelties quickly became eye-rollingly cringeworthy: having Violetta digging her own grave for the entirety of Act 3 not only grows tiresome but is about as subtle as Gastone’s sequined, red nipple tassels.

Claudia Boyle (Violetta) © Catherine Ashmore
Claudia Boyle (Violetta)
© Catherine Ashmore

Kramer was perhaps not helped by his leading couple, who displayed curiously little chemistry despite both clearly giving it their all. Making his UK debut, South African tenor Lukhanyo Moyake sang with admirable clarity and diction, and vocally navigated well the transition from innocent suitor to drunken ex-lover despite a tendency to push the voice in his upper register. However, his stage presence was largely unmemorable, despite the distracting choreography he was called on to perform.

More problematic was Claudia Boyle’s Violetta, whose light lyric soprano struggled to be heard throughout the evening. Boyle is undoubtedly musical singer, offering a finely calibrated performance of the Act 1 aria and some stunning floated high notes in the final scene despite a general tendency to go flat whenever singing below a mezzoforte. More critically, her rather overenthusiastic acting tended to spill over into camp, particularly when coupled with Kramer’s more inane stage directions.

Claudia Boyle (Violetta) and Alan Opie (Germont) © Catherine Ashmore
Claudia Boyle (Violetta) and Alan Opie (Germont)
© Catherine Ashmore

Offering the most satisfying performance of the evening was Alan Opie as Germont. Marking 50 years since his ENO debut, Opie is a savvy performer and despite no longer possessing the ideal Verdian legato needed for the role, offers a complex portrayal and impeccable diction. His Germont is at once sympathetic and unpleasant, perfectly capturing the insular and patronising morality of the character. Smaller roles were well cast, including Heather Shipp and Božidar Smiljanić as a glamorous Flora and Marquis; Smiljanić’s honeyed bass-baritone in particular marked him as one to watch for in the future. The show was very nearly stolen, however, by Aled Hall’s Gastone, having the absolute time of his life in a dazzling array of costumes including the above-mentioned nipple tassels and not much else – his presence certainly provided a much-needed jolt of charisma onto the stage.

Claudia Boyle (Violetta) © Catherine Ashmore
Claudia Boyle (Violetta)
© Catherine Ashmore

The chorus and orchestra were ably handled by debutant conductor Leo McFall. Despite some moments where he covered up the singers, McFall drew some ravishing playing from the orchestra, elevating Verdi’s often simple orchestration into something far more sublime. If only the production would have done the same.