Tokyo’s opera scene is unique in that although opera had been performed in Japan since the beginning of the 20th century, it didn’t have a dedicated opera house until 1997 when the New National Theatre Tokyo opened (it houses opera, ballet and theatre). The theatre is currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary season with three new productions and revivals of their most popular productions including Vincent Boussard’s minimal yet colourful production of La traviata, which opened on Thursday evening.

Irina Lungu (Violetta) and Antonio Poli (Alfredo) © Terashi Masahiko | New National Theatre, Tokyo
Irina Lungu (Violetta) and Antonio Poli (Alfredo)
© Terashi Masahiko | New National Theatre, Tokyo

First staged in 2015, Boussard’s production receives its first revival (directed by Hidenori Hisatsune). The three protagonists were sung by Irina Lungu, Antonio Poli and Giovanni Meoni, while the other roles were given by a strong and lively Japanese cast. In the pit, Italian Riccardo Frizza, a frequent guest, conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the New National Theatre Chorus with finesse.

Visually the most striking feature of Boussard’s production is that the only real prop is a 19th-century grand piano (but no stool!), which is present in all three acts, serving variously as a mini stage (Act 1), a living room table/gambling table (Act 2) and finally Violetta’s bed (Act 3). Otherwise, the staging is simple with a set of walls where various background images (such as images of grand mansions) are projected. One of the walls and the floor is mirrored, giving the space a dreamy feel. Boussard himself says in the programme that his setting is neither in the mid-19th century of the story or the present, but in a “third place”. This is particularly evident in the costumes where he spices up the styles of the party dresses by adding modern touches to an essentially 19th-century dress (Flora’s dress was particularly futuristic).

<i>La traviata</i> in Tokyo © Terashi Masahiko | New National Theatre, Tokyo
La traviata in Tokyo
© Terashi Masahiko | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Acts 1 and 2 were a little sparse on ideas. It was poignant to see Alphonsine Plessis’ tomb projected onto the gauze curtain during the overture, but the opening party scene was glamorous but generic, with a huge chandelier, champagne tower and Violetta in a pink and green dress singing standing on the piano. In Act 2, there wasn’t much visible sign of domestic bliss – an empty room (suggesting the couple’s poverty?) with only the piano, and an umbrella hanging from the ceiling. Intriguingly though, the beginning of Act 2 was the only moment the piano keyboard cover was open, perhaps suggesting Violetta’s real happiness. The lighting in this act was particularly effective, changing gradually from bright daylight in Alfredo’s scene to ominous darkness with the arrival of Germont père.

On the whole, Irina Lungu was vocally confident and played a mature Violetta: it is a role she has very much made her own. Her coloratura in “Sempre libera” was technically assured though not spectacular, and her confrontation with Germont felt emotionally quite measured, but she was magnificent in her final scene. Everything seemed to come together in the final scene, which became the focal point of the production. Violetta, lying on the grand piano, is separated from the other characters – Annina, Doctor Grenvil, Alfredo – by a gauze curtain. Furthermore, an image of a dying woman’s face is projected onto the screen, hinting that she is already unconscious and Alfredo’s arrival is in her dreams. In her final moments, she stands up on the piano and sings “Oh gioia!” and she holds her hand high in triumph as the stage curtain falls, as if to suggest she was liberated. Lungu really put heart and soul into her aria “Addio, del passato” while displaying great technical control.

Irina Lungu (Violetta) © Terashi Masahiko | New National Theatre, Tokyo
Irina Lungu (Violetta)
© Terashi Masahiko | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Italian tenor Antonio Poli, reprising the role he sung here in 2015, was a youthful and naïve Alfredo. Vocally he has a sweet, lyrical tone and I liked his singing, but to match Violetta’s character, he needed a little more force of personality. Giovanni Meoni's Germont seemed a stereotypical austere father, both dramatically and vocally, but as he was a late replacement, it’s probably unfair to judge on the first night. Yuka Kobayashi was a lively Flora, and Keiroh Ohara (Gastone) and Shingo Sudo (Baron Douphol) also contributed to the drama.

Frizza and the orchestra performed with subtlety and sensitivity throughout, a little measured in Acts 1 and 2, but they brought intensity and drama to the final act, supporting Lungu with a luminous sonority. In particular, I was impressed by Frizza’s tight control of the ensemble moments such as the Act 2 concertato. As ever, the well-drilled New National Theatre Chorus was excellent, in particular their chorus of gypsies and matadors, which can sometimes sound a bit humdrum, was classily sung. Ultimately though, the enduring image I will take from this production is the image of the liberated Violetta at the end.