Richard Eyre’s 1994 Royal Opera House production of La traviata does not necessarily seem revolutionary, but many subtle touches are to be found within its curved walls. Designer Bob Crowley works virtually every scene around a semi-circular set, with each one employing its own tools and techniques to shed light, and provide commentary, on the action.
Act I takes place in a sumptuous Art Deco interior, revealing Violetta’s role as the archetypal fashionable Parisian. The most important features, however, are the doors. Whenever these are open, and people are free to enter, Violetta assumes her frivolous, sociable persona. As soon as they close, on the other hand, she becomes a far more introverted character. Indeed, the end of the Overture sees her sitting thoughtfully to one side, and it is only when the doors open at the start of the Act that she changes. They swing out once more as she moves from the contemplative ‘Ah fors’è lui’ to the carefree ‘Sempre libera degg’io’, in which she reasserts her wish to enjoy Parisian life to the full.
Similarly, Act II’s gambling scene takes place beneath an ornate palace roof, its gilded surfaces lying at peculiar angles. Here we find a red bullring and a casino table with overhanging metal light. It is not to be taken as a literal space, but clearly the bullring alludes to the antics of Gastone and his friends as matadors, and creates an appropriate arena for action that all too readily alludes to gladiatorial combat. At the same time, the insertion of the more modern table and lamp under a palace roof may suggest that this form of gambling has taken its place within a far greater history of wealth and decadence in Paris.
If the sets are something of a constant in this long-standing production, every cast brings something original to the table, and the performers in this current revival by Andrew Sinclair are no exception. Joyce El-Khoury, making her Royal Opera debut, really grows as Violetta over the course of the evening. In Act I, as she makes much use of hand gestures in ‘Sempre libera degg’io’, she proves stronger at playing the frivolous, social butterfly than the weakened and shaken figure to be seen in ‘Ah fors’è lui’. Although this is mainly a reference to her acting style, her voice initially seems more suited to the carefree aria as well, where its obvious strength and clarity can be played on more easily. As the evening progresses, however, she comes to embody the role more and more so that ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’ is performed with immense sensitivity.
Sergey Romanovsky is a highly intriguing Alfredo who on his own Royal Opera debut reveals an extremely beautiful tenor. On the surface its ringing nature makes it seem very light and ethereal, but it is actually possessed of a certain depth and quite a range of darker hues. In Act I he comes across as a little wooden, even allowing for the fact that Alfredo is supposed to show a nervous captivation in the situation, and it is noticeable how his voice gets better the more that he relaxes. His performances of ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ and ‘Il giovanile ardore’ are excellent, with the only difficulty being that there could be a little more movement in his phrasing. By the time he reaches ‘Gran Dio! Morir sì giovane’, however, he is totally inside the character and it really shows in the brilliance of his voice.
Artur Ruciński is an interesting Giorgio Germont, having made his Royal Opera debut with the role in 2014. Across their Act II encounter with Violetta, most Germonts clearly move from showing sternness and expectancy to sorrow and compassion. Ruciński reveals each of these various traits only more evenly across the scene as a whole. This is not a bad thing, because it reveals precisely how the character is torn, but occasionally when he makes one trait come to the fore it can lead to a gesture that feels hammed, especially since his acting overall is so convincing. His baritone is very secure and persuasive, and it is interesting how both scenes in Act II end with our focus being on him. At the end of the former Alfredo rushes out leaving Germont to pick up the letter that Violetta wrote to him, and that he has just discarded. At the end of the latter Germont supports Violetta by walking off with her with their arms linked.
While it is possible to identify certain weaknesses in the performances of all of the principals, they matter very little in the face of what is good about them, and the resulting evening is highly engaging. In the pit, Daniele Rustioni conducts with extreme sensitivity, revealing all of the detail and beauty to be found in the score. By the same token it means that the choruses ‘Noi siamo zingarelle venute da lontano’ and ‘Di Madride noi siam mattadori’ do not have quite enough fizz for the occasion, but this is a very small price to pay for ensuring that moments such as the opening to Act III become almost painfully beautiful.
Liparit Avetisyan sings Alfredo for the Welcome Performance on 28 January at 12 noon. La traviata also returns in the summer season with eight performances between 14 June and 4 July 2017. The part of Violetta will then be shared between Ekaterina Bakanova and Corinne Winters. The performance on 4 July will also be relayed live to outdoor screens around the country as part of BP Big Screen events.