In a good performance, Verdi’s romantic masterpiece La traviata can seem one of the greatest music dramas in existence. If ENO’s new version did not quite suggest this, it was nevertheless an entertaining evening and a relief after the critically panned Gaddafi: A Living Myth.
There were two important debuts on Wednesday night. First was that of Conall Morrison, whose production marks his first collaboration with the company. Second was that of soprano Emma Bell, whose Violetta was not just a role debut but a Verdi debut.
Morrison updates the opera to nineteenth century Dublin during the potato famine, yet does not dwell on the setting to the detriment of the drama. Given that Traviata is set exclusively indoors, the illness-stricken city is only glimpsed in the distance, illuminated under the light of a huge Moon. The interiors meanwhile are each superbly constructed and lusciously beautiful to look at.
The curtain rises in Act One to a scene reminiscent of Franco Zeffirelli’s film version, with Violetta lost in a gloomy room of decay and poverty. The following party sequence is awash with colours – the green wallpaper, the red furnishings, the blue mystery of the distant city outside the window. The house in the country is windswept, with wicker walls and trees blowing their leaves onto the stage. The final act has Violetta strewn awkwardly on a flimsy metal bed, dying painfully while others die around her. The staging is naturalistic – In Act Two Scene Two there is none of the hallucinatory red and gold of the Royal Opera’s version – and we are firmly reminded that La traviata is a drama about people.
Emma Bell’s debut as Violetta has its positives and negatives. The major plus is that she obviously understands the part well, and understands how to use her voice to best serve it. Even in Act One, she often toned down her soprano to a glorious piano and let it linger, while the octave leaps up in her Act Three aria were excellently handled. Projection was fine (she has obviously worked hard on this), and diction was clear. There is, however, still a strong doubt as to whether her voice is ready for this notoriously difficult role.
In Act One, she took a time to warm up, and her upper range was particularly shrill. It is partly the fault of a wide vibrato, and some of the writing just lies too high for her. (She did not attempt the optional climactic high E flat of the act.) Her delivery was often breathless and in coloratura or decoration there was a lack of clarity between pitches. Act Two showcased her middle voice, and was much better – her confrontation with Alfredo’s father was absorbingly sung – and the low writing in Act Three showcased a full tone. Her acting was also good, though with those fierce eyes she seemed more demented than tragic.
Sadly the Alfredo, Rhys Meirion, was indisposed, so we had Dwayne Jones instead. He also took a time to warm up (about an hour, in fact) but once he had, he produced a lovely open-throated ring. His acting was also spot on, and one truly believed his anger in Act Two and sorrow in Act Three. James Westman made a compelling Germont père, with his magnificent stage presence and forceful voice. Smaller roles were all taken well, including an excellent Doctor from Graeme Danby and a suitably radiant Flora from Anne-Marie Gibbons.
The conducting of Jonathan Darlington was a bit of a mix. He gave too much lyricism and too little vigour to the party scenes, culminating in a far too ponderous gypsy dance in Act Two (luckily the brilliant choreography made up for this). He did manage, though, to draw some lovely sounds from the ENO orchestra.
This Traviata is not the greatest that London has seen. The production is admittedly not challenging, but it looks fantastic – many images stick in the mind, including matadors hanging from chandeliers in Act Two and Violetta struggling toward a blinding open window at the opera’s conclusion. It is excellently sung, and even if Emma Bell did not make the kind of role debut that first night audiences hope for, she was never less than good. Her voice will almost certainly mature into the role in time, and for that we must wait with anticipation. For now, do financially troubled ENO a favour and go and see this excellent show.