Tom Cairns’ Glyndebourne Festival Opera production of La traviata, which premiered in 2014 and subsequently enjoyed a touring version, now returns to its original home. On the surface the staging appears to be quite simple, but a host of subtle details help to ensure its effectiveness. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets have a certain Art Deco feel, but it seems that we are actually looking at a present day that happens to embrace some earlier fashions. Crystal chandeliers hang above flat and curved freestanding planes, and if the placement of these restricts the movement of the chorus in Act I’s otherwise exuberant party, they generally serve the staging well. Violetta practically clings to one during ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’ while their positioning also creates the right infrastructure to bring out certain points. Violetta begins every act lying on a bed with the curved wall behind her creating a virtually separate room. This proves an excellent device for revealing how she continually makes the effort to overcome her weakness to become a social butterfly as she then enters a practically different realm. At the same time, the fact that no divider entirely sections one area off from the other suggests how Violetta cannot escape her illness, which will always catch up with her in the end.
If the staging provides a strong grounding to the experience, the evening is made special by two exceptional performances. The first comes from Kristina Mkhitaryan whose Violetta reveals everything one might ever look for in the part. With infinite presence, Mkhitaryan captures Violetta’s vivacious appetite for life alongside her frailty, and reveals how her need to be loved walks hand in hand with a big heart of her own. Her soprano is extremely well developed and the richness of her sound combines with equal strength in all registers, impeccable phrasing and a total sense of ease. The extent to which she fully embraces the role is revealed in moments such as when she turns her head and suddenly produces the most hushed sound imaginable, and one is left marvelling at how anyone could encompass the part quite so completely.
After witnessing such a strong performance in Act I it then feels like a revelation to be introduced to a second principal who in terms of sheer class matches Mkhitaryan. Igor Golovatenko is an incredible Giorgio Germont whose baritone is so strong and consistent that we sense from his first appearance that he is never going to put a foot wrong. His Act II encounter with Violetta is gripping, and his portrayal of the father extremely interesting. Most singers will try to strike a balance between revealing the character’s dual senses of expectancy and guilt, but while Golovatenko covers both bases it is the former trait that comes across most clearly. He frequently stretches his arms out and yet, with the exception of the end of the scene, we never feel that they are going to touch Violetta. These are arms bent on taking what Germont wants, not on consoling the victim of his actions.
Once Violetta has agreed to give up Alfredo, this Germont almost looks as if he is irritated by her continuing to ‘go on’ about it, and simply wants to be out of the place. Very tellingly, he hands her money but after she rejects it by throwing it across the floor he quietly gathers it up and pockets it once more. When subsequently encountering Alfredo most Germonts seem racked with guilt as they offer comfort knowing full well that they have caused the harm. This Germont, however, proves very slick at presenting a sob story regarding how his son has treated him so badly, before literally rolling up his sleeves to welcome Alfredo back into the fold. Nevertheless, the real achievement of Golovatenko is to present such a figure while still not coming across as entirely unsympathetic and arrogant. That Zach Borichevsky as Alfredo does not feel quite as strong as either Mkhitaryan or Golovatenko says more about the brilliance of their performances than about any inherent weaknesses in his own. His tenor is highly pleasing and if when his voice expands it is possible to start detecting its limits, he presents a good performance in his own right and in no way lets the side down.
The staging also helps to pierce the psychology of the piece. When Alfredo reads the letter from Violetta and discovers she has left him Germont enters stage right and is by his side in a heartbeat. This movement is paralleled at Flora’s party when Germont goes through exactly the same motions to end up next to Alfredo as he condemns him for his treatment of Violetta. The revival choreographer is Emily Piercy and she ensures that the gypsy performers look particularly business-like. As we see their leader order them to start their dance they clearly know what kind of performance is expected of them, and that the real money is to be had from enticing the men present into the nearest bedroom. Other strong touches include keeping Annina (Eliza Safjan) on stage at the end of Act I so that Violetta sings ‘Ah fors’è lui’ and ‘Sempre libera’ to her. The cleverness, however, lies in securing a presence so that Violetta does more than sing her thoughts to herself, while not making the maid’s reactions so obtrusive as to destroy Violetta’s personal connection with the audience. Annina’s actions may be a little larger in the second aria but that is because it can cope with this. There are a few projections, courtesy of Nina Dunn, but they are used sparingly and thus help to make the production feel particularly well measured.
Richard Farnes’ conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra is excellent, but we constantly find ourselves being drawn back to the performances of Mkhitaryan and Golovatenko by virtue of the pair’s brilliance and magnetism. This La traviata may not be perfect but when strong credentials across the board combine with two truly outstanding performances, it is worthy of the highest rating. The ending is interesting as the other characters exit and the sets are pulled away so that Violetta dies in isolation. To remove the context for her demise at the key moment could feel jarring in some circumstances, but by allowing us to focus solely on the person who has taken us so completely on their heart-wrenching journey it provides the perfect conclusion to a deeply moving evening.
Joyce El-Khoury, Atalla Ayan and Dmitri Platanias sing Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio Germont respectively and Andrés Oroczo-Estrada conducts for the performances in August. A performance from the original 2014 production, with Venera Gimadieva, Michael Fabiano and Tassis Christoyannis, will be broadcast to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide from 8 June. For details of participating venues visit the Glyndebourne Cinema & Online 2017 webpage.