Peter Konwitschny’s production of La traviata, which first appeared for English National Opera in 2013, attempts to pare down Verdi’s masterpiece, removing anything that is not absolutely vital. One advertisement suggests that ‘The production is ideal for newcomers to opera with its contemporary staging, and a running time of less than two hours’ and this may be so. I just wonder though if it will prove quite so satisfying for anyone who already has any knowledge of, or love for, the piece.
The entire set consists of several rows of silky red curtains, and (despite the production’s ‘contemporary’ label) these give the evening a certain 1920s Art Deco feel. Everything is set up to be highly charged, running without an interval, the programme making it clear exactly what we are supposed to glean from the evening. When we read in the synopsis that the guests ‘have come as voyeurs, for apart from the prospect of a sexual adventure or two, they are chiefly keen to be regaled by the woman’s death’ we realise that this is a production intent on nailing its colours to the mast. Unfortunately, such hyperbole is not always constructive.
In a production that goes all out to present a hedonistic yet claustrophobic society, there is little problem in portraying Violetta because it only involves exaggerating her natural traits a little. In this way, decked out with bob haircut and glamorous dress that blends with the curtains, Elizabeth Zharoff certainly looks the part. Towards the start, she can be a little abrasive in the upper register, and enunciation is not always at a premium, but overall she reveals a full, soaring voice that is perfectly suited to conveying recklessness and vulnerability. Her performance of ‘Addio, del passato’ is particularly affecting, and on what is her UK debut she gives everything we could ever hope for at the end.
If, however, Violetta’s character is pushed one way but moves with the grain of the piece, Alfredo’s is pushed the other and goes totally against it. He is presented as a snivelling nerd, equipped with a host of awkward gestures. Not only does the removal of any sense of dignity to his character make it difficult to appreciate why Violetta might ever see anything in him, but it also makes his accusatory rage during Flora’s soirée entirely unconvincing. It isn’t the fault of Ben Johnson, who puts in a fine vocal performance, but rather a problem with the way in which the production demands the part to be played.
With his rich, full baritone voice, Anthony Michaels-Moore is a powerful and engaging Giorgio Germont. He does reveal some sensitivity and understanding of the real sacrifice he is asking of Violetta, but overall it is the character’s arrogance and sense of expectancy that is brought to the fore. Germont actually introduces his daughter to Violetta during their lengthy encounter, and the presence of a third figure does disrupt this most intimate of scenes. At one point Giorgio strikes his offspring before instantly showing remorse, which proves symbolic of how in this production all of the right emotions are rendered, but in an exaggerated rather than believable manner.
The cuts are not always helpful as we do not gain any sense of the rumours abounding about Violetta before she actually appears at Flora’s soirée, and the histrionics sometimes feel misplaced. When the crowd condemn Alfredo for this treatment of Violetta their crazed dancing is nowhere near as moving as, say, simple finger pointing might be. On the other hand, for a production that does lay so much emphasis on decadence and hyperbole, it seems a shame that the gypsy and matador entertainers who would surely have supported such themes do not appear.
The ending is powerful, with Zharoff putting in a tremendously emotional performance, moving towards another world beyond the back of the stage as the other characters stand in the auditorium. While, however, working through the front row of the audience can be a little annoying as a comedy gesture because it is used so often, Alfredo doing so as Violetta utters her dying words is totally jarring because it proves so distracting.
There are positives including Roland Böer’s excellent conducting, and Martin Fitzpatrick’s effective translation. It is also worth adding that this production is being broadcast live to cinemas on 11 March and it may prove highly effective on screen. Its reduced proportions may be better suited to ‘film’, while the colour and shine of the curtains should come across well. It may also be easier to take the large emotions offered up by the characters when the camera allows us to appreciate these on their own terms, rather than in the context of a wider setting.