As El Padre used to say, there are two things to see at an opera. The first is the opera — the second is people watching the opera. Never is this more true than at the opening night of a fresh rendition of La Traviata; the Royal Opera House’s latest outing, lovingly directed by the usually excellent Richard Eyre, attracts an audience as mosaic and unknowable as Boris Gudunov. White tie mixes with tattered mesh jackets; the oldest of old money rubs against ruddy-faced scions of European commerce. Opera — the great leveller. La Traviata — the ultimate draw. All of which is to say, in a roundabout sort of way, that this, like Tosca, is an opera that does not need to be perfect to be adored — and that this truth is a vital feature of the experience. An elderly man at the bar, for example, complains to me before the show even begins that he has seen La Traviata “at least ten times this year”; yet, when the bell is rung, he bounces in as quickly as anybody. Verdi transcends — but will Richard Eyre?
The answer, happily, is: ‘Yes, for the most part’. Every scene feels luxurious and real, bursting with convincingly aristocratic mise en scène, and lit like scenes from an opera set in Heaven. Eyre wields white light, chandeliers, blue curtains, and ice sculptures with monolithic precision — it often feels as if every object onstage has been plucked from an infinite library of inferior alternatives, hand chosen to guide our eyes to Verdi’s God crouching behind the curtain. It is the best looking La Traviata I have ever seen.
The singing — or, as a purist will put it, the point — is a less total success. Bassenz’s Violetta hits high notes with unfailing technical accuracy, but can’t help falling into the trap of becoming a little shrill at the peak of her arias. Similarly, her stage presence, while effective, is not commanding or dignified in the manner of the best Violettas; as such, while her plight is heartrending, she fails to let the audience peek in on the full pathos of Verdi’s fate turning against one guileless heroine to tear her from the earth at her happiest. Bassenz is sad, but she is never more than a woman.
Liparit Avetisyan’s Alfredo is better, captivating the room with his mood of aggressive, remorseful intensity, and singing wonderfully; his ‘Libiamo’ fixed a smile to my face that took minutes to fade. Avetisyan, though, has none of the sex appeal of many of history’s most memorable Alfredos — rather oddly so, since his part, and the plot, is so dependant on his chemistry with Violetta. Neither of the chief players ever seems particularly attracted to one another, and the essential sexlessness of Eyre’s vision has the effect of truncating the poignancy of Verdi’s plot. On the bright side, Simon Keenlyside as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, is electric; his gaunt face, roaring tenor, and anguished movements — stiff, ashamed, desperate — laid a very heavy grip on the opening night audience, and I was one of many who gave his performance the loudest ovation at the curtain call.
There are several other observations worth recounting, though none that will affect whether or not you go to the ROH this winter. Act II’s matador chorus is one of the best in La Traviata’s history — though all too brief, it confirms Eyre as a major talent in the niche art of using microscopic, barely-there details to exacerbate the impact of the most vivacious moments (for example, a very innovative use of a handheld fan to mime sexual intercourse). Germán E. Alcántara’s Baron Douphol is beautifully performed, with a face like a bull and a walk like a proud horse; unusually for La Traviata, Alcántara’s performance walks the Baron to an unexpected new status as the most memorable minor character. Conductor Daniel Oren does a wonderful job musically, though makes too much of encouraging the audience to applaud his worthy troops — he paused for as long as twenty seconds after the first interval until the volume of our applause had satisfied him. The music itself, adeptly performed, sometimes risked drowning out the singing, especially in Violetta’s case — yet this was a rare, sporadic problem, and could be easily fixed.
That, then, is Eyre’s La Traviata. Good, sometimes very good, but this time not a must-see. And yet — and yet. Why has La Traviata endured so long, while other operas with more interesting plots, and more complex music, have fallen away? The ending, of course, is the answer. The ending. It would be dishonest of me not to admit that, when Violetta flew around the stage, skirts flying, singing and screaming the line ‘I shall live’, before falling into Alfredo’s arms, dead, I was not thinking on any of my reservations about the ROH’s over-reliance on Verdi, or Daniel Oren’s love of applause, or Eyre’s perfect furniture, or Alfredo’s sexlessness; I was weeping. It is the greatest ending in opera — divine but Godless, alive but dead — and its abrupt, jarring, horrifying mood never can be obsolete. And so, I suppose, you should see this production — provided that what you seek is not perfect Verdi, but just to have your heart broken again. And again. And again. One more time.