Matthew Williams-Ellis

La Traviata


With their new production of Verdi’s seminal middle period work La Traviata, this summer’s Longborough Opera Festival has created one of the most intelligent and emotionally engaging interpretations of this opera that I have ever seen. Updated from the nineteenth century, director Daisy Evans has created a kind of contemporary setting rather like the one that Verdi originally had in mind for his own day, a work for the theatre where the story seems to reflect back to its audience and constantly reference our own lives, prejudices and preoccupations. To that end, Violetta becomes a celebrity film star or actress, not a celebrity courtesan; the kind of celebrity that might be made by Love Island, say, and the way the story plays out with her commitment to a sudden and unexpected love as well as her manipulation by the conventional, right-wing, honourable but totally blinkered Papa Germont, are immediately accessible to today’s audiences and echo what is going on in the news at the moment. There is, for example, a groping producer on the film set who is clearly able to exercise his power over an eager starlet, and Jenny Stafford’s Annina is the quintessential devoted PA. These are just two of myriad bits of action that fascinate and ring true and enrich the presentation constantly. The subtitles help update the tale, sometimes giving the singers comments about the end of filming or other contemporary suggestions that are not in the original sung Italian. Quite simply, this production makes real sense and works dramatically.

Musically, this Traviata was a real treat. The conducting by Thomas Blunt elicited simply ravishing sounds from the orchestra as well as the stage; the pacing of the music was exemplary and allowed the score to breathe and convey its complexities and also its emotional depth as well as elements of wry social satire.

I liked the handling of the big party scenes set in a contemporary world of celebrity, but became most completely involved in the intimate, personal scenes. Violetta’s ineffectual attempts to stop Papa Germont from manipulating her, her sense of guilt, the struggle she went through, the anguish when she sings “Amami, Alfredo” were all conveyed with total commitment; by the end of the opera a good many of the audience members were in tears. All the characterisations were both emotionally and dramatically powerful, and that means all the minor roles too, not just the principals.

Violetta was supposed to be played by the American soprano, Paula Sides, but a conflict of engagements meant that she pulled out at short notice. She therefore had to be replaced by Anna Patalong, who was simply superb. She looked the part and she acted with complete understanding. She was sexy and needy from the start and one could truly believe that Alfredo has loved her at first sight. Her voice is strong, dramatic and beautiful; she has wonderful vocal control; she was a convincing Violetta both musically and dramatically at every moment, darkening and becoming even more compelling as her story progressed. Peter Gijsbertsen conveyed an attractive but somewhat shallow Alfredo early on in the first half of this performance; he is very sexy and charmingly captivating at the start and his humiliation of Violetta at the second party is shocking and heartbreaking. He conveys fully his hurt, rage and juvenile inability to pause and consider not only what he is doing but what Violetta might be doing. He is a thoughtless young man. And then he is wonderful as the returning, contrite Alfredo of the conclusion. “Parigi, O cara “was sung by the lovers with great beauty and sensitivity. Violetta in the last scene was very powerful. Another exemplary performance was given by the baritone, Mark Stone, as Germont père. His voice and acting in the second act were memorable and completely in character. Indeed, every member of this cast seemed to know his or her own character intimately. All in all, a truly moving evening.