This is a minimalist staging of La Traviata which, on the whole, works rather well. There are a few idiosyncrasies to detract from the overall effect, but the last act is so well scored that one is still left feeling emotionally wrung-out.
Curtains and chorus provide most of the design – there are very few frills (perhaps the ENO has realised it was spending to much on the sets). The curtains are constantly being drawn back and re-closed, symbolic no doubt of Violetta’s (Elizabeth Zharoff) defensive barriers that all courtesans must possess. The chorus is put to good effect in providing the illusion of a busy set, yet sometimes this can seem a little strange; there is one point when they all engage in a fight for their coats. Also a bit odd, the entire chorus play 52-card pick up in Act II. I suppose the message is that life is a game of chance and we play the hand we are dealt, but it distracts from the music and leaves the stage littered with playing cards, which I suppose was the point.
A further oddity, although a nice touch, is the depiction of Alfredo (Ben Johnson) as a gauche academic. The usually assured character now offers Violetta security in the form of a rather bookish learning. Still, perhaps the straggly cardigan is a bit of a stretch.
There is no interval, so Zharoff and Johnson do magnificently to continue the action for the full two hours without a break. It’s a tough gig emotionally, dramatically, and musically but, if anything, they got better as the performance progressed. Zharoff started perhaps a little forcefully (I’m not a great fan of vibrato) but soon mellowed, captivating us with her controlled lyricism as she prepared to die. The encircling gloom of the last Act was very powerful.
Johnson, who is an excellent high tenor, and Michaels-Moore, an assured baritone, play the complex father-son relationship with sensitivity. This production has them (and others) making appearances in the main auditorium, with both brings the action closer and distances us further from Violetta. This is a nice idea, but means that Alfredo must occasionally scramble over various audience members as he makes his way down the rows. This again proved to be slightly distracting as I’m sure I couldn’t have been alone with my internal monologue along the lines of “will-he-won’t-he fall over?”.
Musically excellent, there were just a few corners that grated slightly. I felt that the overture was a touch too smooth (it should start off like a consumptive’s stilted breathing), and there were some jarring changes of tempo to little effect. For some reason, the two or three moments of high drama narrowly missed meeting their potential. The goose bumps and raised-hairs didn’t quite happen, but that could have been a symptom of the first-night.
It’s a good production and there is much to enjoy. I absolutely commend the evening to everyone, but bear in mind that this is one of many different productions of an old classic.
- By Giuseppe Verdi
- Directed by Peter Konwitschny
- Cast includes: Elizabeth Zharoff, Ben Johnson, Anthony Michaels-Moore
- English National Opera, London
- 13, 17, 20, 24, 27 February & 5, 11, 13 March 2015
- Time: 19:30
- Review by James Holloway
- 10 February 2015