Twenty-one years, twelve revivals and umpteen casts later, Richard Eyre’s Royal Opera production of La traviata still has much to recommend it. Bob Crowley’s designs are handsome – the salon in Flora’s draws gasps from newcomers – and the costumes are sumptuous. It is the very model of a modern major house stalwart. However, any revival stands or falls by its principals and their ability to inhabit the roles rather than merely sing them prettily. A good revival director helps. With indifferent singing and rudderless direction, this revival, although often efficient, failed to move me.

Marina Rebeka (Violetta) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Marina Rebeka (Violetta)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

Statuesque Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, scheduled to sing the role of Violetta later in this run, stepped into these opening performances for Sonya Yoncheva, who is indisposed. Vocally, Rebeka’s Violetta has much to admire. Hers is surely the biggest sound to fill the role here since Anna Netrebko, with whom her voice shares more than a passing similarity. Rebeka has more of a glint of steel than the Russian’s warmer, rounder tone. She attacked the coloratura cleanly, although the interpolated E flat in “Sempre libera” betrayed a certain tightness, and in the Act II concertante there was great dynamic range. Hers is a soprano with plenty of ‘blade’ and much of her singing impressed me.

However, Rebeka’s level of dramatic engagement was variable. It didn’t help that her default facial expression in Act I was a broad smile. I didn’t feel that her Violetta was at all perturbed by Alfredo’s arrival into her life. There was a glacial cool about much of her portrayal. She gave a dignified account in Act II, a strongly delivered “Dite alla giovine” and a promising “Amami, Alfredo”… but she never moved me. In Act III, her Violetta was robust: no colouring of the voice to suggest her character’s fatal illness, no frailty in her acting, no pallor in her stage make-up. Death almost came as a complete surprise. Rebeka’s only performed the role at Covent Garden once before, a jump-in for an ailing Angela Gheorghiu. As this run progresses (she’s got another nine performances) I hope that her Violetta evolves.

Angelica Voje, Samuel Dale Johnson, Marina Rebeka and Ismael Jordi © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Angelica Voje, Samuel Dale Johnson, Marina Rebeka and Ismael Jordi
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

Ideally, Alfredo needs a degree of shyness or puppyish ardour which Spanish tenor Ismael Jordi seemed unwilling to admit. His Alfredo was cocksure of himself and impetuous, which worked best in the party scene where he flings his winnings at Violetta. His vocal journey was a bumpy ride, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” full of uncomfortable gear-shifts from head voice to chest voice taken at full throttle. Jordi also suffered several lapses of intonation, notably at the end of his duet with Rebeka in Act I.

Marina Rebeka (Violetta) and Franco Vassallo (Germont) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Marina Rebeka (Violetta) and Franco Vassallo (Germont)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

Franco Vassallo was a noble Germont père, a little woolly at first, but his baritone opened out nicely in “Di Provenza”. If anything, he melted a little too sympathetically, too soon towards Violetta’s plight. However, I liked the final moments of Act II, where it is Germont who raises Violetta to her feet and proudly takes her arm to leave – a nugget from revival director Andrew Sinclair. Pamela Helen Stephen’s contributions as Annina stood out – a shrewd piece of casting – and Samuel Dale Johnson’s Baron Douphol impressed.

Conducting La traviata is a bit of a thankless task – you tend only to notice things in the pit when they go wrong. Marc Minkowski emerged creditably, a few coordination lapses aside, the orchestra playing with vim and vigour. He chose a very slow tempo for the second verse of “Ah, fors'è lui” but gained points for retaining it, as he did the second verse of “Addio, del passato”. In fact, Minkowski inflicted very few cuts indeed (second verses of both Germonts’ cabalettas) yet the performance still finished a good ten minutes ahead of the scheduled finish time without the score feeling in any way rushed. In Traviata though, three hours is a long time to spend without shedding a tear. 

***11