Love on a Tombstone in WNO’s La Traviata

14/02/2012

 Verdi: La traviata (Revival premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Julia Jones (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 12.2.2012. (GPu)

Production:

Director: David McVicar
Revival Director: Marie Lambert
Designer: Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer: Andrew George
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

Cast:

Violetta Valéry: Joyce El-Khoury
Alfredo Germont: Leonardo Capalbo
Giorgio Germont: Jason Howard
Flora: Amanda Baldwin
Annina: Sian Meinir
Baron Douphol: Eddie Wade
Marquis of Obigny: Philip Lloyd Evans
Doctor Grenvil: Martin Lloyd
Gaston: Howard Kirk
Giuseppe: Simon Crosby Buttle
Flora’s Servant: Laurence Cole
The Messenger: George Newton-Fitzgerald
Female Dancers: Jo Jeffries, Sophia McGregor, Jenna Sloan, Sirena Tocco
Male Actors/Dancers: Gordon Brandie, Stuart Hulse, Henrik Jessen, Colm Seery, Al Sill

 

David McVicar’s production of La traviata, a co-production for Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona, is intelligent and sensitive, alert to the nature both of Verdi’s music and the words of Francesco Maria Piave (what a fine librettist he was) and content to respond to them creatively, rather than to start from a concept not inherent in words or music and make them fit it. Verdi originally wanted to call the work Amore e morte, but the censors wouldn’t allow that; he wanted the opera performed in modern dress, but the censors wouldn’t allow that either. McVicar’s production brings out very lucidly how much the opera is about the interconnections between Love and Death and the set and costumes evoke a period close to (perhaps a decade or two later than) the date of the opera’s Venetian premiere in 1853.

Without being by any means unrelentingly gloomy, McVicar’s production, as revived by Marie Lambert, is death-haunted throughout. Even before the overture, we can see the broker’s men making an inventory of Violetta’s furniture and making preparations for its removal. When the overture begins a desolate Alfredo (a first time viewer might not know who this character was, but would surely grasp his significance) walks slowly across the front of the stage through an abundance of fallen flower petals. It is a haunting image which colours what follows and an audience’s reaction to it. The overture completed and the stage properly visible for the first time the heavy drapes seem both luxurious and suffocating; gradually one recognises that the whole floor of the set is a recumbent tombstone suitably inscribed (the effect is subtler and less blatant than my account makes it sound). The gaiety of the first Act seems more than ever desperate, a refuge from realities no one is willing to face – realities which centrally include Love and Death.

This revival of McVicar’s production was unlucky to lose its scheduled Alfredo, the Mexican Carlos Osasuna, who had to return to Mexico for family reasons. His replacement, Leonardo Capalbo arrived only two days before this first performance (and, indeed, missed the dress rehearsal). If he seemed, understandably, a little nervous in the opening stages of the performance, he grew into things very well and made an engaging and sympathetic Alfredo (with a good Italianate tone) – an innocent and confused foil to the sophisticated and clear-sighted Violetta of Joyce El-Khoury. El-Khoury’s voice had a shrill edge in parts of Act I but revealed itself as an attractive instrument as things proceeded, even if she (like Capalbo) was more thoroughly convincing in the quieter, more inward, moments than in the ‘public’ scenes. The exchanges between Violetta and the Giorgio Germont of Jason Howard were strangely touching, with Germont’s initial stiffness and pomposity, his reliance on a kind of emotional blackmail, growing into genuine sympathy and respect, and Violetta’s awakening to social realities (or perhaps one should say conventions) she had long tried to forget beautifully realised by both the stage manner and the vocal inflections of El-Khoury. Both she and Capalbo sang and acted with touching sensitivity (and did well not to be hindered vocally by an excess of stage-smoke during the early stages of the final act – unlike some in the audience whose coughs, at least, did not have to be put down to consumption!). Both principals gave committed and (vocally speaking) largely impressive performances, which made a lot of sense in terms of characterisation and the psychological / emotional dynamics of the work. Jason Howard, initially so primly authoritative as Germont père, persuaded one that he too had undergone a genuine growth into conflicted (and to him troubling) emotional complexity. Conversely, Eddie Wade’s Baron Douphol was, quite properly, without much of an inner life, a man unable to think save within very narrow parameters. Amanda Baldwin’s Flora was alert and animated and, although Verdi and Piave give her little to work with, Sian Meinir’s Annina was touching in its openness and loyalty.

It seems nowadays to go without saying that the WNO Chorus was excellent – but let it be said again. To say that the singers of the chorus can always be relied upon might sound like faint praise – but it is true that they are dependability itself, and that they (and chorus master Stephen Harris) deserve more than merely faint praise for their consistently high standards. The orchestra, who are now also playing at a consistently high level both in the opera pit and on the concert stage (for which credit must surely go to music director Lothar Koenigs and leader David Adams) lived up to the standards they have recently set for themselves, and conductor Julia Jones will, one hopes, be making more appearances for the WNO. Her conducting had the virtues of lucidity and, where appropriate, elegance; she let echoes and internal cross-references speak for themselves, and gave them room to do so without undue forcing of the moment. Once or twice she erred on the side of understatement, when the music might profitably have taken a bit more characterisation, but the overall effect was splendid and chorus and soloists certainly benefitted from her well-judged support in the pit.

This is a production which genuinely serves the music and the text and consistently illuminates the quality of Verdi and Piave’s work. The production and the performances may not be of the kind to which one rushes to apply the epithet ‘revelatory’ (an epithet which sometimes covers as many ‘sins’ as ‘virtues’) but they do make one recognise anew how fine a work La traviata is. And that makes for a rich evening in the theatre.

Glyn Pursglove

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