Richard Eyre’s 1994 Royal Opera House production of La traviata has always been persuasive, but this revival makes it feel even more multi-faceted than usual. If this is mainly because of the strength of the cast, the act of engaging with them does help the audience to pick up on many of the subtleties in the staging itself.
Designer Bob Crowley works virtually every scene around a semi-circular set, with each one employing its own tools and techniques to shed light, and provide commentary, on the action. Act I takes place in a sumptuous Art Deco interior, revealing Violetta’s role as the archetypal fashionable Parisian. Throughout the act we see that when its doors are open and people are free to enter, Violetta assumes her frivolous, sociable persona, and when they are closed she becomes a far more introverted character. Nevertheless, it becomes noticeable here that the divide is not always clear-cut for when she begins her one-to-one encounter with Alfredo they actually remain open. The implication is that the moment does not so much represent a watershed as a simple shift in the party’s centre of gravity following Violetta’s being taken ill. As two dancers sail past outside, momentarily dwelling by the doors, it seems clear that they are still intent on being seen by the hostess.
This sense of complexity ties in with Marina Rebeka’s excellent portrayal of Violetta. Normally, Violetta changes entirely in mood from the contemplative ‘Ah fors’è lui’ to the carefree ‘Sempre libera degg’io’. In this instance, however, from the first note of the latter aria we feel that she is not effortlessly reasserting her wish to enjoy Parisian life, but rather trying to persuade herself that that is what she ought to do. In this context, Alfredo’s offstage ‘calls’ do not shake her out of her old way of thinking, but merely confirm the uncertainties she is already acutely feeling.
Rebeka, who also played Violetta for several performances in the 2010 revival, possesses a voice that conveys so much about the character. Always measured and precise, it can be pure, nuanced, sumptuous or overwhelming. The hushed volume she applies to many phrases is also telling, highlighting moments when she is deeply contemplative, or thoughts that she hardly wishes to accept as being true. With strong arm gestures, her acting is sufficiently forceful to be moving yet never hyperbolic, and her encounter with Germont as she gradually realises and accepts what he is asking of her is deeply affecting.
Ismael Jordi is an equally fine Alfredo. He is possessed of a round and relatively light tenor instrument, but the smoothness and precision he brings to every phrase makes for an immensely accomplished performance, and his renditions of ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ and ‘Oh mio rimorso!’ are highly pleasing. Franco Vassallo as Giorgio Germont produces a magnificent baritone sound, even if his portrayal of the character is a little two-dimensional. The problem is not that ultimately his sensitivity and anguish come over more than his arrogance and sense of expectancy, but that sufficient attention still needs to be paid to both sets of traits in order to reveal how one of them wins over. With him coming across as so apologetic from the outset, there is little sense of any psychological progression during his Act II encounter with Violetta. Nevertheless, the fact that this Germont is so likeable in itself makes us want to stay with him, and Vassallo’s performance is by any measure a strong one.
From among the more minor roles, Pamela Helen Stephen as Annina, Jihoon Kim as the Marquis D’Obigny, James Platt as Doctor Grenvil and Samuel Dale Johnson as Baron Douphol stand out. Marc Minkowski’s conducting is subtle, measured and nuanced and if it is good, rather than exceptional, in supporting the chorus, the degree of sensitivity he shows as he really works as one with the soloists is truly remarkable. This is a revival that is well worth catching.
Casts and conductors vary over the run. In particular, Plácido Domingo sings Giorgio Germont on 28 May and 3 June. For full details visit the Royal Opera House website.