tue 19/08/2014

La Traviata, English National Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews

La Traviata, English National Opera

A heartfelt Violetta can't hope to connect with her men in awkward update

Corinne Winters as Violetta: to love or not to love?All images by Tristram Kenton

How’s a good time girl to bare her beautiful soul when a director seems bent on cutting her down to puppet size? It doesn't bother me that Peter Konwitschny shears Verdi’s already concise score by about 20 minutes to shoehorn it into a one-act drama; what goes is either inessential or among the usual casualties of standard Traviatas. The spare and economical idea of layered curtains to symbolise the characters' constriction or emancipation is good in principle, too. But so impassioned is American soprano Corinne Winters’s Violetta that to rob her of any meaningful relationships with the man she loves and the father she’s supposed to soften tears the heart out of a brilliant music-drama.

There’s not much vocal shapeliness about conductor Michael Hofstetter’s chilly account of the Prelude (apart from a few surprising blaze-ups, the rest is efficient rather than ideally fluent). And we soon realise there’s distancing in Konwitschny’s initial concept: Violetta the seemingly brittle society victim gets pushed together with bookish Alfredo, a duffle-coated nerd catapulted among the DJs and silks. She can change; he can’t, according to Konwitschny. Country love and a dying Violetta leave him as stiff and awkward as ever. There’s no real ardour, no real anger or regrets for poor Ben Johnson (pictured with Winters in the final scene below) to latch on to. Still, this young British tenor is a real asset for ENO – probably more for Mozart and Britten than Verdi or Puccini, for even this lightish role is a bit of a stretch at the top for him.

Ben Johnson and Corinne Winters in the ENO TraviataKonwitschny thinks we’re more likely to believe in Violetta’s sacrifice for Alfredo’s convention-bound father if the daughter she’s supposed to step aside for is shoved on to the stage as a harrowed, pigtailed schoolgirl: the courtesan might do her best for another downtrodden female. This, though, makes father Germont so much the irredeemable bully that the shifting dynamics of the great duet at the heart of the opera go for nothing (and what’s with the gun Violetta pulls towards the end?) Anthony Michaels-Moore (pictured below), after an unsettled start on the first night which found him hectoring the smoother legato lines, is the genuine Verdi-baritone article, and sings his romance of attempted consolation to the devastated Alfredo with real style. But his character remains as one-dimensional as his son’s.

Anthony Michaels-Moore as father Germont in the ENO TraviataFor Corinne Winters, there are the same obstacles to creating a real human being. In an uneasy balance between stylisation and naturalism, every move seems phoney: drag the curtains here, jump off the chair and collapse there. Which is a terrible shame because, although hers may not be the most individual of voices, she fills it with intensity and can do everything Verdi asks: the coloratura hectic flushes of the determination to carry on with the high life at the end of the first scene, the lirico spinto ability to pull out the vocal stops for the big, desperate phrase of “Love me, Alfredo” and the curving lines of anguish in the second party scene, the tenderness of the too-late last love duet.

That final scene ushers in another problem for Winters, though. The red curtains of Johannes Leiacker’s effective designs work well; it’s certainly a bold moment in Konwitschny’s “Scene Three” when, in a fast moving party scene thankfully free of rhe usual gypsies and toreadors, Alfredo’s violence in the big confrontation sees all the red drapes pulled down, the chorus crashing to the ground only to crawl off and leave the heroine to her endgame. That leaves a black curtain at the very back of the stage against which Violetta has to deliver the aria we know as “Addio del passato”.

The first scene of the English National Opera TraviataIt’s a measure of Winters’s emotional projection that we can still hear her with her back to the audience and as far away from them as the all too vast Coliseum stage allows. And why can’t Alfredo and Violetta just hold each other for their simple dreams of an illusory future instead of stepping back again to try in vain to pull some invisible curtains back (you get the symbolism very quickly). The intimacy which is so strong a feature of Verdi's semi-domestic opera seems less valid than ever in this vast venue.

The last image, at least, is strong: the Germonts and hapless Doctor Grenvil singing from the auditorium, Violetta reaching out from the stage before stepping out of the circle of light and into the blackness beyond. But after a too-solid Mimì (Maija Kovalevska) in a Covent Garden Bohème which is as conventional as the Traviata there – time for a change – here was a second consumptive heroine who couldn’t make us shed a tear. And this time we had a soprano who was perfectly capable of doing so in the right circumstances. If you want to see a German regietheater re-think which works, watch the DVD of Willy Decker’s Salzburg production with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Although none of the smaller roles made much impact at ENO, the company should be proud of fielding a pair of lovers not too far behind that starry couple; it’s just a shame that Winters and Johnson have a director who works against them.

Comments

The music and the singing

The music and the singing were terrific however it appeared that the production was designed to save a lot of money and we left the theatre feeling pretty cheated!

For what it's worth, I saw

For what it's worth, I saw this last night and thought the singing was superb, Corinne Winters in particular was excellent, and if the sign of a good Traviata is the amount of tears cried over it, then this is a corker. The ending with Violetta's (choice?) of walking into the dark was powerful drama, but overall, the production left me cold. To have so much of the (in)action carried out on one chair was not gripping stuff, and with the wrong head in front made it difficult to see much of what little was happening, similarly the singers' forays into the audience were not visible from the upper circle so added nothing to the spectacle. Papa Germont hiding in the curtain in between appearances with his feet sticking out was frankly laughable and the drawing of imaginary curtains laboured the point. However, despite all the gripes, the music was fabulous, and the ending softened my personal dislike of the staging. Would definitely recommend.

I agree with all the above!

I agree with all the above! So uneven - by half time I thought the production an embarrassing disaster - the curtains/veils a neat idea but why that theatrical fabric and colour tones against Violetta's dress? Just awful - the idea could have been so much more powerfully carried out.... BUT! as it went on it built - the singers' intrusion into the auditorium worked very well - and by the end he had conjured one of the most shattering endings I can remember - totally awesome in death - and it stays with me to this moment. That ending and the tremendous singing trumped everything - quite fabulous. I think worth seeing!

I agree with all those who

I agree with all those who say the singing was generally first rate and the music was of a very high standard. Corinne Winters' performance was sensational. I also thought the ENO orchestra responded well to Michael Hofstetter's direction. However the production is a complete travesty of Verdi's masterpiece. The portrayal of Alfredo as a village idiot was totally unconvincing and most of the opera's big emotional moments were completely lost, especially in the final scene. I thought the cuts in Verd's score also made no sense, I left the Coliseum pondering what could be achieved with this cast and a more conventional production. Sorry but for me not remotely good enough.

I was there on first night

I was there on first night too and found the constant applause for the singers a major interruption. If the point of dropping the ballet and the interval and the scenery and everything traditional about Traviata is to concentrate on the drama, then it doesn't work, does it? I have to say I found the Brechtian production both irritating and pretentious, a typical exercise in Deutchesregietheater gone wrong. Why on earth would glamorous Violetta run off with a duffel-coated drip like Alfredo? And what was the point of the cast barging though the audience during the performance? In brief: go to hear a gorgeous Violetta, but that's it.

I urge readers of Mr Nice's

I urge readers of Mr Nice's notice not to be dissuaded from experiencing one of the operatic highlights of the last twelve months. He describes the trees but heroically misses the wood. Konwitschny's 'concept' is challenging and thought provoking and the musical execution is spine tingling.

I'd be interested to know

I'd be interested to know what you think the "wood" might be. I saw only one living tree in Konwitschny's concept, the Violetta, and he admits it - the rest are dead wood. Not helpful to the drama. Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph sums it up nicely, I think: "although Konwitschny’s vision is sharp-edged and clean-lined, it seems bleak, narrow and jejune compared to Verdi’s".

Like him, I found the evening "gripping and impressive" but not "moving or beautiful". But Mr Rosenthal misinterprets me in his account of the applause: I was brava-ing as loudly as anyone for Corinne Winters. And I think I make it clear that this is still a performance well worth going to see.

The new ENO La Traviata in

The new ENO La Traviata in fact, as the audience appreciation showed all too well, is a rare operatic evening that should stay for around for many revivals. There was only too much applause after many of the numbers by all the wonderful singing/actors helped by a revelatory conductor, unknown to me, but who re-invented this most difficult to shape in detail of scores, in ways both heartfelt and exciting where appropriate. As for the production by Peter Konwitschny it was neither deliberately, if interestingly perverse like that of Willy ,Decker's nor tired like that of the ROH, nor kitschy like most productions of the past - it was splendid to look at, beautifully lit, full of psychological revelation, economical in style and seemingly in cost. In all it was a unique operatic/theatrical interpretation of a masterpiece that everyone able to get to ENO should see and hear. We are so lucky to have it in London. Your Mr Nice's critical reservations are just plain wrong! Rather it is the greatest possible beginning to Verdi Year 2013!

I couldn't agree more with

I couldn't agree more with the above comment. I was there last night. Not only that, I know Traviata inside out and back to front, having sung in the chorus of Kent Opera and Scottish Opera, both doing about 40 performances each in English and Italian respectively. Mr Nice is, yes, just plain wrong! This show is one not to be missed and a credit to the company!

I can only concur with the

I can only concur with the above observations. Corinne Winters gives a bravura performance whose vocal gymnamstics are only to be marvelled at for one so young and so slight looking. She draws out great emotion from the part of Violetta and although truncated, the work is both expressionistic and impressionistic. There are many psychological layers both visually and symbolically to draw the audience in and the five curtain calls at the end said it all. Do not miss it and ignore the negaitve crits. The whole cast from the cocktail waitresses to the the great baritones make for a fulfilling evening.

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