Set in mid 19th century Paris, in a society of double standards – outward moral rectitude and conventional respectability contrasted with hypocrisy and decadence behind gilded doors – this complex social backdrop in turn contrasts with what is essentially a simple story, summed up by Verdi as “a subject of our time”. Love, sacrifice and loss, but set in an era of male obsession which dominated his century.
The curtain opens on this claustrophobic world with the demi-mondaine Violetta alone, trapped in the cage of her own apartment, while the men who would be her clientele stare in through the windows. It is a world superficially perfumed, as by the flower for which she is named, to hide the moral decay of the times. It is a world in which she is transformed by selfless love from a whore, albeit hardly recognisable as such, into the essentially decent, shining and admirable woman upon which the curtain closes.
This production possesses outstanding quality: in its musical brilliance, both in the singing and orchestral direction, and its design and staging by John Gunter. Evoking the opulence and luxurious façade of the Second Empire, the production contrasts with the venality and financial insecurity which supports it. Life is lived for the moment but when emotional security finally comes to the protagonists, that too is fleeting and momentary – as Violetta is released from her suffocating illness, calling out in joy moments before she dies in Alfredo’s arms.
Richard Farnes conducts the orchestra and chorus with panache and sympathy, as the currents of the music ebb and flow, maintaining perfect control and balance with the singers. The singing is flawless. Majella Curragh traces the emotional journey of Violetta as she discovers and surrenders to love only to have to sacrifice it and suffer agonising loss – finally matched by physical pain. She possesses vocal skills of such clarity, power, range and control. With a seamless legato she caresses the phrases of the arias Ah, forse lui and Dite alla giovine with a voice of liquid gold.
David Kempster has a beautifully modulated low voice of paternal, commanding power which resonates with thought and feeling in the role of Giorgio Germont. His scenes with Violetta in the Second Act form the dramatic and emotional core of the opera, confronting her pride and vulnerability with a conventional morality which causes more harm than good.
Edgaras Montvidas plays the role of Alfredo Germont convincingly, initially immature and almost gauche, breaking away from the rigidity of his upbringing, when he falls for Violetta. Angry and hurt when his brief period of happiness with her away from Paris society is frustrated by financial difficulties, his arrogant public denunciation of her as whore in second scene of Act Two is ambivalent and wretched, rather than enraged.
It is of regret that the Chorus, although musically excellent, fail to engage fully until they provide the floorshow at Flora’s party in the Second Act; for example Libiamo is almost too restrained and hardly reflects the glamour, licence and pleasure the words portray.
However, the elements of music, singing and acting finally entwine to produce a consummate and totally heartrending operatic experience in the last Act where the direction brings Alfredo and Violetta into each others arms. Any disconnection between physical and vocal freedom is removed as they struggle to reconcile fate with faith in each other.