A tenth revival for Richard Eyre’s ultra-traditional production, and not the only one this year. It’s easy to see why: everyone knows Traviata, so it won’t be hard to persuade Rupert from Compliance to show up for it, and the production itself makes no demands whatsoever on either the intellect or, for that matter, the emotions.
Last time, we heard Renée Fleming and Joseph Calleja as the doomed lovers, and before that, Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann: this time, our courtesan and her callow youth were played by two young Albanians, Ermonela Jaho and Saimir Pirgu, the soprano having stood in for the ironically bronchitis-afflicted Netrebko in 2008.
Having young singers in these parts brings its own joys and distractions: both Jaho and Pirgu were excellent at suggesting the occasional naïveté of both protagonists, and there was a touching innocence about Violetta’s ‘Ah fors’ è lui’ and a raw candour in Alfredo’s ‘O mio rimorso!’ both of which were most welcome. Elsewhere, Jaho was a little under-powered, although this was compensated for in part by her genuine fragility and sensitivity of phrasing, with ‘Dite alla giovine’ the perfect example of both. She almost provided the desired fireworks at the end of the first act, and was rewarded with – apparently de rigueur for this production – an individual curtain call.
Pirgu seemed tentative in characterization – is Alfredo a weakling, a romantic lover, a charlatan, or all or none of these? – and he is in good company, tenors such as Joseph Calleja who come down wholly on the romantic side being in the minority. His voice shows promise, although he struggled at times to stay on pitch: his great advantages are his stylish phrasing and very steady mezza-voce. His ‘Parigi, o cara’ did not quite make you want to expire in his arms there and then (and what a mercy that would be) as, say, Kaufmann might, but he supplied sufficient ardour to convince.
Dmitri Hrostovsky’s Germont père is a known quantity, his solid presence and stand-and-deliver style as familiar as his vocal assurance and ability to make such a well known aria as ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’ seem an integral part of his being. Changhan Lim made a vivid impression as the Marquis, and both Eddie Wade’s Baron and Robert Lloyd’s Doctor were towers of strength. Kai Rüütel’s Flora and Sarah Pring’s Annina offered strong characterizations.
The production is large-scale, with vast furniture often impeding the singers, lots of heavily inlayed wood about, and an overall sense of brooding heaviness. The claustrophobia induced by the rotunda of Act I is echoed in the gaming scene in Act II, where the inverted-cauldron appearance of the central lighting fixture causes the gypsies to seem even more like the Witches in Macbeth than their music usually makes you imagine. The final act is blessedly free of inlays.
Yves Abel, making his ROH debut, guided the ROH orchestra with finesse, often making the big set pieces seem as intimate as chamber music, even though this approach seemed at variance with the big bow-wow style of the production as a whole. A vintage ROH evening, but I would like to see a new Traviata on this stage.