It’s only a year since the Royal Opera revived Sir Richard Eyre’s atmospheric staging of Verdi’s La traviata. Why is it back so soon, especially when the casting is so lamentably provincial? Thankfully, Verdi remains unscathed, and the production is as handsome as ever in Bob Crowley’s settings. But there was really no excuse for this second-rate performance by one of the world’s greatest opera companies.
La traviata is the ne plus ultra of mid-period Verdi: absolutely everything about it is right. The story is divided into four main scenes, in which the consumptive courtesan Violetta’s brief, and fateful, encounter with the young (but penniless) aristocrat Alfredo Germont is deftly recounted. The art of manipulating form to strong dramatic effect had engaged Verdi for some years, and it is in Traviata that his procedure is clarified and at its most effective.
The greatest indication of this is that the opera usually goes by in a flash. The first act, for instance, is brilliantly conceived: Violetta meets Alfredo at a party she’s throwing; he toasts her in public; they sing a love duet in private, when he learns of her fatal illness; and the act concludes with a huge aria in three movements, when Violetta goes over the events of the act in her mind, wondering what to do, and deciding in the end to give in to the joys of love and life, whatever the consequences. Even before this is set to music, the dramatic structure is a marvel – succinct and pithy.
Violetta is a horrendous role to sing, requiring high coloratura in the first act, a strong dramatic middle voice in the second act, and stamina for the low-lying final scene. Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez‘s performance got steadily better after a very weak first act. Her rendition of the cadenza passages in the Act I finale was a claustrophobic experience, and her acting was similarly uncertain in the early stages. Act II found her in more confident voice, however, especially in her gently soaring line at the act’s conclusion. In Act III she lacked pace, but was generally affecting. And I was impressed by her vivid understanding of Verdi’s most ingenious manoeuvre, when he makes us believe Violetta is about to recover only seconds before her death. Linguistic coaching would be a help, however: most of the time her words were incomprehensible and her performance was generally marred by a Spanish-sounding pronunciation of the Italian text.
Charles Castronovo was a let-down as Alfredo, lacking heftiness, lyricism, passion, and the top notes that the role requires. In particular, his version of O mio remorse revealed a technical inadequacy that was characteristic of a bland performance overall. Luckily, his father, Giorgio Germont, was played by a more competent singer, the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić. Indeed, he was the only true Verdian singer amongst them. The odd tuning problem aside, here was a big-voiced, elegantly-phrased interpretation of one of the composer’s darkest creations. Perhaps he lacked menace in the Violetta-Germont encounter, but Di provenza il mar was beautifully done.
Three Jette Parker Young Artists made worthy contributions: Liora Grodnikaite as a feisty Flora, Robert Gleadow as a handsome Marquis D’Obigny, and Nikola Matiic as Gastone. The chorus was mostly excellent, and the orchestra played well enough, but Philippe Auguin‘s conducting was woolly. True, he replaced Edward Downes (to my deep regret and disappointment) at fairly short notice, but there were far too many instances of poor co-ordination between stage and pit, most notably the huge crescendo in the chorus’ stretta in Act I and Alfredo’s stanza of Parigi o cara in Act III.
It was an efficient evening, and I still admire this intelligent and unfussy production. But the next revival requires more care and attention, plus starrier casting, to keep audiences coming back for more.