Opera Holland Park’s new production of La Traviata means very well. The vocal performances are committed, the orchestra plays to a high standard and the production makes a sincere attempt to update Verdi’s melodrama while retaining its character. But the production never quite makes sense, and the first performance on Tuesday evening was unsatisfactory and often frustrating.
Director Elaine Kidd, in her company debut, moves the action to something equating to 1920s America, and the cool decors and sleek, slutty dresses seem to have fallen from the pen of F Scott Fitzgerald. Initially I nodded my head over the opening set’s clean contours, lines and colours. The imposing pillars and marble effect wall panels tower above fragile Violetta, yet there is something seductively luxuriant about the setting, a sense of money wasted very well.
Sadly, this opening promises more than is ever delivered. La Traviata expertly mixes the public and the private, but neither was convincing here. The grand, jubilant party scenes were overdone, the gypsy and matador choruses in Act Two scene two especially so: in the former, the attempt at raucous comedy (the male chorus shoving their heads up the single gypsy’s skirt) raised not one titter and seemed embarrassingly leering; in the latter, a well-intended pas de deux between gypsy and matador suffered from uncertain choreography and cumbersome attempts at phallic symbolism. And the scenes of private dialogue and drama were also poorly directed. Violetta’s Act One cabaletta Sempre libera may be a virtuosic showpiece, but it is also a private, intimate musical portrait of a woman’s confusion, and to have servants laying tables and dancing jigs through it was, for me, an abysmal error of judgement.
It is difficult to judge the singers’ dramatic talents when their direction wasn’t up to scratch. Kate Ladner didn’t quite nail either Violetta’s flirtations or her heartbreak, but she came close. In Act One, the problem was that soprano voice, which is large and vibrant but with a wide vibrato that damages the coloratura. In the lengthier lines of Act Three, Ladner excelled, but why was she made to sport pink silk and recline on a pristine white leather sofa when she should be dying in squalor? Seán Ruane was a very mixed bag as Alfredo. His tenor is ringing and strongly projected, but the role lies a tad too high for him and some passages were a strain. I also wished for a more ardent, lyrical approach at times – he threw away too many phrases.
Robert Poulton as Georgio Germont tried his hardest to phrase and colour, but his baritone was on Tuesday underpowered and quivering. Julia Riley was an endearing Flora, but her role went largely unnoticed. Underpinning all was the at times overly fast but nevertheless passionate conducting of John Gibbons, who pulled from the orchestra another solid performance for the season. I especially liked the Act One Prelude, with its moving string vibrato and playful conversation between cellos and violins. The chorus were fine. But the production, for all its good intentions, failed the performers, and the result was a Traviata that barely engrossed and rarely moved.