Every opera company needs a top quality production of Traviata that it can roll out to bring in the crowds and fill the coffers. Verdi’s tuneful and tear-jerking masterpiece contains some of the finest moments in opera and it is more than capable of flourishing in many settings and versions, traditional and innovative. Daniel Kramer’s new version for ENO has some clever ideas and some fine performances – and Leo McFall brings the best out of the ENO orchestra – but it never quite hangs together and unfortunately its shortcomings are much more obvious than its strengths.
Violetta Valery is a high class courtesan living a dissipated life in Paris. The young and naïve Alfredo Germont falls in love with her and, against her better judgement, she runs off with him leaving her old life behind to live in rural bliss. But Alfredo’s father intervenes and persuades Violetta to leave the man she loves. Alfredo is consumed by jealousy and, by the time he realises that they are both victims of his father’s bourgeois moral standards, it is too late.
Claudia Boyle is a fine Violetta. She looks stunning at the start and cadaverous at the end – as she should. She sings the key arias with a passion that is dramatically spot-on and musically fine, if a little under-powered at times – the Coliseum auditorium is very hard on young singers. Alan Opie is one of the best Germonts I have ever seen – singing with precision and power and twisting his way through the complex changes of mood as he submits Violetta to psychological torture then begins to have second thoughts as he sees her essential goodness. Lukhanyo Moyake is not in the same class as Boyle and Opie – his voice is strong but lacks music and his acting is stilted and uncertain. However, it is difficult to know how much of this is down to Moyake and how much is the product of director Daniel Kramer’s unusual take on the opera.
There is nothing wrong in updating Traviata and there have been many fine versions set in contemporary times. Kramer has some interesting things to say. Violetta is the alpha female in a high class brothel and the entertainments at the two parties – the one that she throws in the opening scene and Flora’s party that ends Act 2 – are perhaps aimed at conjuring up modern day orgies. But to put the ENO chorus in white underwear with a few touches of rubber just does not convince and, though they sing magnificently, they look ill at ease simulating kinky sex acts. And the portrayal of Violetta and Alfredo’s passion is very strange – they both look like excited children at the end of the first scene, Violetta jumping up and down with delight and Alfredo wagging an imaginary tail. We know that death stalks Violetta from the first notes of the score but to set the final scene in a graveyard, with Violetta looking as if she is searching for the skull of poor Yorick, just undermines what can be the most tragic moments in all opera.
There are some wonderful moments. The point at which Germont disowns his son at Flora’s party is chilling. And the confrontation between Violetta and Germont as he tells her of his “pure and lovely daughter” and the ‘impure’ Violetta ends by asking him to embrace her “as a daughter” is heart-breaking, as the music tells us it should be. That these moments are a bit lost amongst a lot of business that does not hang together is a real shame.
- By Giuseppe Verdi
- Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave
- Director: Daniel Kramer
- Conductor: Leo McFall
- Cast includes: Claudia Boyle, Lukhanyo Moyake, Alan Opie
- English National Opera, London
- Until 13 April 2018
I hate writing these comments on the current production of La Traviata at the English National Opera in London because I really cannot recommend it and I was hoping I would be able to. For me, it just doesn’t work. It is full of tricks and gimmicks that are arresting at times, sometimes for even a whole three or four minutes; but mainly this approach ultimately undermines the actual work of art that is Verdi’s popular opera. Get a copy of the Zeffirelli film of La Traviata or the Solti-conducted production at the ROH with Angela Gheorghiu, both on DVD; and also of George Cukor and Greta Garbo’so1936 film Camille if you want to engage with this story. The new ENO production does not do it for me at all.
Daniel Kramer seems to me not to have responded to the text and the music but to have decided arbitrarily to impose his own view of what he wants the story to be all about, despite the evidence of the tale. Violetta in the original is a high-class courtesan living in a very specific social context. She has considerable nobility and pride and what defeats her is the bigotry of social conventions – a bigotry partly displayed in the salon that she runs for her lover, the Baron Douphol. Hers is not a house of ill repute; her friends are definitely not perverted prostitutes; the men are not mere clients; and her love for Alfredo is both sincere and a desperate attempt to find some happiness and even normalcy in what is left of her life, for she knows from curtain up that she is dying and so do we. There is a book called The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt that will give you more of an idea of the context of the Traviata story than this production does. There have also been several much more successful attempts to update the story. I remember a particularly moving Welsh National Opera production to which I took my then-teenaged daughter. She understood the whole thing right away because of this intelligent production. Like the new ENO staging, the WNO Traviata was set in an art deco Paris and there were lots of mirrors. But in that production the basic character of the story was respected. The update helped people realise immediately the kind of world they were entering and related well to contemporary experience. This ENO production seems to me simply to be a mess. And it raises the question of the difference between finding a fresh interpretation of a famous work and simply imposing a wayward vision for the sake of being different. Kramer is also ultimately disrespectful of members of the audience who actually might never have seen this work before by presenting them with something that is an invalid experience of the work..
Kramer seems to think that Violetta was a denizen of a very louche bordello, and that most of the sex the customers were seeking was perverse; that, indeed, all they were seeking was raunchy, perverse sex. Therefore in his approach the two parties in the opera have to be orgies with lots of cross-dressing men in high heels and corsets, nipple tassels in various colours, dazzling mirrors all over the place to emphasize the narcissism, and a good deal of sexual writhing as in very weird hormonal adolescent daydreams. The set by Lizzie Clachan and the costume design by Esther Bialas might work for another story and are certainly eye-catchingly clever if rather too busy. They had a dazzling impact for the first few minutes when the curtain went up, but the action quickly became trying and very much an irrelevant fantasy of the sexual aspects of this story.
The romance of Violetta and Alfredo became completely detached from any kind of emotional communication with the audience and thus unmoving. Claudia Boyle as Violetta was hampered by a lot of preposterous posturing and wringing of her hands and flailing of her arms in every single scene that I can only guess was required by the director; and at times she could barely be heard, though I know she has the vocal abilities for the role. Her voice may be on the light side, but she was quite audible previously at the ENO and she definitely has a fine coloratura technique. So is it the staging, the placing of her too far back from the edge of the stage for too much of the time; or simply that she is busy with semaphoring? Lukhanyo Moyake as Alfredo had a couple of nice tenor moments but was also hampered for most of the evening by the staging and a complete lack of believable characterisation. There seemed to be very little engagement with his role until the very last scene or with the audience for a lot of the time. Alan Opie played Papa Germont and people are very kind about him because they see his whole extremely successful and varied decades-long career before them and wish to honour that when he is on the stage. He seemed to me rather uncomfortable both vocally and dramatically the night that I attended.
The good news was, without a doubt, the conducting by my hero of the evening, Leo McFall. He had a real sense of the dynamics, depths and nuances of the score and valiantly kept things under control musically. At times his interpretation was potentially quite beautiful. The orchestra sounded terrific. The chorus did their best. All the principals were very professional and committed to doing what they had to do. I just found that the whole thing was outrageously misconceived and in some ways quite ugly.