First seen in 1994, Richard Eyres Royal Opera House production of La Traviata feels almost as much a mainstay of the operatic repertoire as Verdis masterpiece itself. It is not, however, one that provokes particularly strong feelings in me. I can appreciate the cleverness in Bob Crowley working virtually every scene around a semi-circular set, while still feeling that this opera does not sink or swim with its stage or lighting designs.
It is the performances that will always make the evening, and in Harry Fehrs revival they are not without their problems. It seems likely that many of those encountered on opening night will be overcome in subsequent performances, but what could have been a very strong evening was undermined by several notable issues.
James Valenti as Alfredo is likeable, and his voice tonally pleasing. It is difficult, however, to ignore issues with timing and tuning in Dei miei bollenti spiriti, and although that is certainly his low point, seldom does his voice or character really feel strong enough. There is no doubt that Marina Poplavskaya lays it on thick as Violetta, exploiting to the full the rich, resonant qualities in her voice. This may not be to the taste of those who seek a serener, lighter sound from Violetta, but it is not inappropriate for the part, and Poplavskaya has real presence. For me, the only difficulties were a few lapses in precision and overly harsh moments in Act I, and insufficient emotional variation between the contemplative Ah fors lui and carefree Sempre libera deggio. When, however, Poplavskaya gets it right, which is for the vast majority of the evening, her voice is full of interesting and exciting detail.
There is a profound lack of emotional chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo, which again is most obvious in Act I. Their performance of Libiamo ne lieti calici is successful because Valenti gives the duet a pleasant joyfulness from the start. When he hands over to Poplavskaya she lifts it to another level with her sure command, which is fine because it works to show Violetta as such a publicly strong, charismatic character. In their subsequent intimate encounter, however, it is hard to feel the bond between, and hence anything for, the pair. In the pit, Jan Latham-Koenig gives a sensitive rendering of the Overture before revealing problems of timing both within the orchestra, and between the players and singers, in Act I, although for the rest of the evening he is in much firmer control.
The one unqualified success of the night is Leo Nucci, who also played Giorgio Germont in the original 1994 production. With his voice strong and sturdy, he commands the stage without ever presenting even the slightest caricature of a stern or dictatorial father. One senses that the values he embraces and attitudes he expresses derive more from social conditioning and societal expectations than any inherent hardness in his own heart. His Act II encounter with Violetta, which includes Pura siccome un angelo and Dite alla giovane, is one of the highlights of the evening, and this newly established momentum propels itself into the gambling scene where both the chorus and gypsy dancing, choreographed by Jane Gibson, are delightful. Act III is suitably potent, and Poplavskayas performance of Addio, del passato is particularly moving because here she uses her voice to produce something of utmost sensitivity.
Had Act I been more successful the evening would have turned out very differently, and there is every reason to think that the problems encountered there will be rectified. Poplavskaya only has to work on a few issues to raise an already strong performance even higher, and although Valenti may need to do rather more he has proved that he can when appearing in the same role opposite Angela Gheorghiu here last year. Be that as it may, there is something slightly unfulfilling about emerging from La Traviata feeling that the best thing witnessed on the night was the dad.
Three casts will perform La Traviata over the coming months. Cast A (described above) will perform between 3 and 22 October 2011; Cast B, 25 November-28 December 2011, and Cast C, 2-25 January 2012. For further details visit the Royal Opera House website.