Masterpieces, even when they were conceived to shock and shake audiences, are not immune to routine. Pragmatism, complacency or lack of ambition can easily turn what once was a shattering drama into, at best, a placid entertainment. This Traviata, the first at Teatro Real since 2005's acclaimed production with José Bros and Renato Bruson, did not honour Verdi's genuine flair for provocation and resulted in a lacklustre performance, hampered by an uninspiring cast and uninspired stage direction. The audience, nevertheless, seemed content and relieved with a conventional night of opera after five years of cutting-edge experimentation. An era has definitely finished at Teatro Real but the shape of the new times still remains unclear.

Although Patrizia Ciofi had been announced for months as the opening-night Violetta (she still features in the booklet cover) she disappeared without notice from the official cast some weeks ago and was replaced by Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho. In her early forties, she has an interesting voice, rich and fleshy in the middle notes, which unfortunately loses volume and colour whenever it gets out of the safe central octave. Hers is an odd case, as she was uneasy where a light-lyric soprano should stand out (her coloratura in “Sempre libera” was far from precise) while she struggled to sustain the sound in centre-low phrases, whenever the character turns dramatic (“Non sapete quale affetto” or “Prendi: quest'è l'immagine”). Overall, she sang beautifully and tried to introduce contrast with sometimes inaudible pianissimi, but it is hard to achieve a good Violetta without completely mastering bel canto technique. Even though she sang with true commitment to highly melodramatic standards (especially in her histrionic but convincing “Addio del passato”) she failed to reveal the complexity of the character, mainly due to very poor diction and anonymous phrasing.

Francesco Demuro was the weakest member of the cast. His light-lyric tenor proved insufficient for the demanding role of Alfredo, especially in the second part of Act II. His timbre is beautiful and it never loses Italian flavour. However, all the notes in the passaggio and beyond sounded dangerously open, which forced Demuro to keep focused on avoiding vocal accidents, which almost arrived in several occasions. Dull phrasing and an overall lack of imagination did not help.

Baritone Juan Jesús Rodríguez, on the other hand, raised the level of the performance with an authoritative Germont. His virile timbre is a feast for the ears, especially in the long melodies of “Di Provenza il mar, il suol”. Although his voice has grown throaty, even muscular in the past two years, and some worrying signs of overstrain are starting to appear at the higher notes, it still maintains its velvety, vibrant colour which makes it unique. The voice grew clearer (and healthier) during the cabaletta, without losing volume, which proved that the constant effort that defined his singing may not be at all necessary. His phrasing is rigid and not too nuanced, but its nobility is unmatched among current Verdian baritones. He had some high-class moments, notably a beautiful, caressing rubato in his aria and truly paternal accents in the duet with Violetta. The audience rewarded him with the biggest ovation of the night.

In the pit, Renato Palumbo offered a mixed rendition, making choices that might be ascribed to skill and to necessity alike. He steered clear of a sumptuous interpretation of the score and decisively muffled the string section, used just as a melodic base and not as a driver of the drama. This produced an austere, sometimes poor sound, that protected the voices but did not completely unfold the power of the score. Other sections, such as the woodwind and brass, were fine, underlined in the cabalettas to reveal true Verdian technique. Whimsical tempi and idiomatic but distant phrasing prevented the construction of a consistent drama, but suited the idea and tone of the stage direction.

Even if La traviata is one of the most performed titles of the repertory, imaginative new productions continue to prove how inexhaustible a masterpiece can be. David McVicar's staging, that originated from Scottish Opera in 2008, did not seem to find the inspiration required for the task and resulted in a dull, superficial reading of the story. All the stage, designed by Tanya McCallin, rests on a huge black gravestone with Violetta's name on it, acting as a constant, sombre reminder of her fate. Tenebrous lighting by Jennifer Tipton and mournful black costumes reinforced the idea that we were attending Violetta's anticipated funeral. It is true that this utter absence of hope illuminates the libretto and the music and helps understand some fateful phrases in the long Violetta—Germont duet in Act II. However, all the usual virtues of McVicar's fascinating theatre (bustling energy, total control of rhythm, his ability to build momentum and catch the audience by surprise) were simply not there.