ENO @ Coliseum, London, 31 Jan, 2, 6, 8, 13, 15, 20, 22, 28 Feb, 4, 7 Mar 2002
Verdi's most lyrical and romantic opera is back at the Coliseum in its 1996 incarnation, originally directed by Jonathan Miller and now revived by Steven Stead.
Based on Dumas' La Dame aux Camélias, and later immortalised by Garbo as Camille, the story of the tart with the heart of gold is still affecting.
Though the sets are terminally bland (blue-grey faux-marble slabs of wall, reminiscent of 1980s hotel bathrooms) the costumes are gorgeous, and there are some fine performances to make this an enjoyable evening.
The start was a little rocky, it has to be said, with the chorus not seeming to have much in common with the conductor in the first act and Sandra Ford as Violetta looking gorgeous but seeming very ill at ease at the top of the register. Looking back at my comments on her performance 18 months ago in Ernani - 'sounds exquisite and effortlessly floats her voice, in true Verdian style, over both orchestra and (huge) chorus' - I can only assume she was feeling a little under the weather, as there seemed to be a distinct lack of projection and the top notes were scraped.
However, she improved as the evening wore on, and was genuinely moving throughout. Especially in Act III at Flora's party, when her tiny frame - showcased by the opulent ball-gown - made her seem particularly vulnerable, she was that rare thing, a believable consumptive. Her Alfredo, also a little hesitant at first, triumphed. Rhys Meirion only made his opera debut in 1999 (at Glyndebourne) but is rapidly growing in stature. He has a wonderfully warm, rich tenor, perfectly suited to Verdi (and I'd like to hear his Cavaradossi). He looks a little stolid perhaps, particularly at the very end - Violetta dies and he stands there like a stuffed dummy for an interminable moment - but that's a minor quibble. Jason Howard is equally impressive as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father. He cuts a dignified figure in his big scene with Violetta, and his diction is perhaps the best of all the protagonists.
The production is serviceable if not exciting and I found a few elements distracting rather than helpful. Why is Violetta in trousers at her party? Is this to indicate that she is a modern, liberated woman even in 1860? I thought half the point of the demi-monde was that the women, though of dubious reputation, were dressed so beautifully that you couldn't tell them from the real ladies. Did we have to see the supper table, which despite being huge could only accommodate half of the party guests? Did the others go hungry?
Flora's party in Act III was interesting however, with the guests themselves dressing up as gypsy women and pirates rather than importing entertainers, and doing a great job. This is always my favourite scene anyway - the music is just so lush, it sweeps all before it, and builds tension beautifully to the showdown between Violetta and Alfredo. Chorus and conductor (Mark Shanahan) having come to an agreement by this stage, all was well. The tearful deathbed scene was also well handled (no skipping around the room - Jonathan Miller is too much the doctor to allow that) and brought the proceedings to a fitting close.