Glyndebourne opened its 2017 season with the UK première of Cavalli’s Hipermestra, a work which has had only one other staging within recent memory. In a humorous juxtaposition, it was followed up with a revival of Verdi’s La traviata, just about the most ubiquitous opera that can be found. As an opening pairing, it’s a savvy way to begin, showing creative and commercial flair.

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Violetta) © Robbie Jack
Kristina Mkhitaryan (Violetta)
© Robbie Jack

Tom Cairns’ production, first seen in 2014, remains a curiously detached beast that feels like it needs a stronger sense of artistic vision to account for its updated setting. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is minimalist, dreary and largely unappealing – the party scenes feel more like decent student digs than lavish Parisian salons – tight on space, poorly lit and questionably furnished. Likewise, Violetta’s country pile feels like she has only moved on to selling the horses because she’s run out of furnishings to auction. Flashes of colour are provided by the vibrant red of Violetta’s outfit against the grey. Cairns seems to be on the verge of developing something with Violetta’s maid, Annina, whose attachment to her mistress appears somewhat improbably to get her an invitation to all the parties. There are some moments of flair – the third act plays around with lighting to bring a symbology and heightened sense of drama that was missing for much of the performance. Violetta’s bedroom is at times not just dark; it’s almost fogged, suggesting her fading sight and the blurring of barriers between life and death. Cairns’ use of ring-structure (each act opens with Violetta lying motionless on a bed) offers a sharp reminder of the imminence of her death, and perhaps plays around with the unspoken element of the courtesan’s life. Mention should also be made of the well choreographed gypsy and matador scene at Flora’s party.

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Violetta) and Igor Golovatenko (Germont) © Robbie Jack
Kristina Mkhitaryan (Violetta) and Igor Golovatenko (Germont)
© Robbie Jack

Kristina Mkhitaryan, a stalwart at the Bolshoi Opera, was a new name to me and she gave a tremendous performance as Violetta, compelling both vocally and dramatically. Pale and clear in voice, she moved from plush confidence in the first act to the thinnest of textures in the third. Vocal control was tight; her pianissimi were particularly fine and there was a cheering purity in the higher register that ensured clean coloratura. Mkhitaryan’s devotion to the role was convincing: from her initial interest in Alfredo to her noble renunciation and to the final tragic moment when she briefly revives, there was a physicality to her performance that provided that extra charge, aided by an obvious understanding of the libretto. Glyndebourne may well have had a preview of a singer who will go on to be one of Verdi’s finest interpreters.

Zach Borichevsky underwhelmed as Alfredo, delivering a patchy vocal performance that suffered from a strained top and uninspired phrasing. Towering awkwardly over the black-tied guests at Violetta’s party in a blue suit, there were possibilities to emphasise him as an ‘outsider’ figure, but these were not pursued. He found charisma in his bitter fury at Flora’s party, and in his reunion with Violetta in Act 3 there was finally a sense of a spark between the two.

Kristina Mkhitaryan (Violetta) © Robbie Jack
Kristina Mkhitaryan (Violetta)
© Robbie Jack

As Germont, Igor Golovatenko was on excellent form with his plummy baritone commanding and well-articulated. Energetic and free in the higher register, he found plenty of colour with which to shade the voice. His country scene with Violetta was the highlight of the first two acts: approaching her initially as the undemonstrative and curt pater familias, it was touching to see his tenderness towards her grow, his light touch on her face seeming to surprise even him. William Dazeley’s brutish Baron and Rihab Chjaieb’s warm Flora made worthy contributions. Henry Waddington’s Doctor was a quietly sympathetic presence as Violetta’s end drew near.

It’s always reassuring to have Richard Farnes in the pit and this was no exception; he eschewed an overtly emotional style for a nuanced and subtle reading of the score that saw strong performances from all sections, with particularly rich playing from the strings.