"I loathe Traviata!" declared David McVicar back in 2003, ahead of his stage production of Camille at the Lyric, Hammersmith. "I could never do such a coarse, clumsy reduction of this woman." Perhaps this is what makes McVicar’s Traviata so great, for when he finally relented, directing it for Scottish Opera in 2008, rather than setting Verdi’s opera, McVicar returned to its source material: La Dame aux camélias, the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils which was based on his real-life affair with Marie Duplessis. Revived once again by co-producers Welsh National Opera this autumn, it's still darkly impressive.

Anush Hovhannisyan (Violetta) © Jane Hobson (2017 for Scottish Opera)
Anush Hovhannisyan (Violetta)
© Jane Hobson (2017 for Scottish Opera)

Dumas' novel opens with the sale of Marguerite Gautier’s effects after her death, the unnamed narrator purchasing her copy of Manon Lescaut which brings him into direct contact with her distraught former lover, Armand, who had presented it to her. Soon after, they witness the exhumation of Marguerite’s body, to be moved to a new grave. Before the pale string Prelude to Act 1 of Traviata begins, McVicar plays out this sale, dust sheets covering the furniture in Violetta's salon, and then sets the entire action of the opera on her tombstone. Etched across the stage: Ici reposé Violetta Valéry, née le 15 Janvier... then not quite the birth and death dates of Marie Duplessis, for McVicar moves the action forward from the crinolines of the 1840s to the long bustles and low-cut bodices of the Parisian demi-monde of the 1880s. It feels inspired by the paintings of James Tissot and Édouard Manet, with hints of fin-de-siècle decadence.

Tanya McCallin's monochrome set is framed by funereal, heavy black drapes, the exception coming in the first few minutes of Act 2, where a split stage features white curtains as we witness Violetta and Alfredo in bed, a brief moment of happiness together. But as soon as Alfredo's “De miei bollenti spiriti” is over, the predominant black returns; even in their countryside love-nest, the atmosphere reeks of claustrophobia and decay.

Dancers and WNO Chorus © Betina Skovbro
Dancers and WNO Chorus
© Betina Skovbro

Revived by Sarah Crisp, this final night of the run felt routine, although there were some telling touches, particularly in the second scene of Act 2. Violetta is effectively already dead here, resigned to her life with the Baron, whom she clearly holds in contempt. Yet she's still strong; after Alfredo has insulted her, it is she who comforts him, curled up in her lap like a puppy. Andrew George's lively choreography for the can-can girls adds an element of sauce, even if most of the boulevardiers in this particular salon are more elderly than Germont père!

After last autumn's success in this production at Scottish Opera, Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan reprised her Violetta for Welsh National. Indisposed with a cold, evident via a few intonation issues and a slightly veiled tone early on, she coped remarkably well. The second verse of “Sempre libera” was begun in a confidential half voice, until smashing her Champagne glass as an act of defiance. Act 2 brought out her luscious, dark colours and if her Act 3 was a little too histrionic, deliberately souring her tone and often departing from the note, then “Addio del passato” was sensitively phrased. I liked that she was properly bedridden – many productions force Violetta to be far too mobile – Hovhannisyan barely staggering a few feet from her bed.

Roland Wood (Germont) and Kang Wang (Alfredo) © Betina Skovbro
Roland Wood (Germont) and Kang Wang (Alfredo)
© Betina Skovbro

Despite exhibiting a wide vibrato, tenor Kang Wang has quite an attractive sound but never really made much of Alfredo. Roland Wood's solid baritone threatened to bulldoze his way through the role of Germont, but he softened in his long scene with Violetta and his “Di Provenza” was sensitively sung. James Southall conducted a tidy performance, occasionally pressing ahead of the singers. Not the most distinguished Traviata vocally, but it's always rewarding to revisit McVicar's intelligent staging and to return to the opera's literary origins.

***11