Stripped Down, Fast Paced Traviata at ENO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, La traviata (sung in English): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Michael Hofstetter. (conductor), London Coliseum, 2.2.12 (CC)


Violetta Valéry Corinne Winters
Alfredo Germont Ben Johnson
Giorgio Germont Anthony Michaels-Moore
Flora Bervoix Claire Presland
Gaston Paul Hopwood
Baron Duphol Matthew Hargreaves
Marquis Charles Johnston
Doctor Grenvil Martin Lamb
Annina Valerie Reid
Dancairo Geoffrey Dolton
Joseph David Newman
Messenger Paul Sheehan


Director Peter Konwitschny
Set Designer Johannes Leiacker
Lighting Designer Joachim Klein

After the Royal Opera’s recent rather traditional staging of Traviata, by Richard Eyres (see my reviews here and here) it was left to the enterprising English National Opera to supply a production that stimulated – and infuriated – in equal measure. Here is a Traviata, directed by Peter Konwitschny in Verdi’s bicentenary year (this I believe is Konwitschny’s UK debut as director) that continues ENO’s “commitment to the reimagining of classic repertoire” and provides a “fresh take on one of Verdi’s most popular operas” (quotes taken from the ENO press pack). Well, it is different, that much is for sure.

This is Traviata stripped bare and, in terms of cuts, just rather stripped. It is heard without interval (bar takings down, then) and lasts around 1 hour 50 minutes. So there are omissions, notably in choral work – the passing revellers in the final act, for example. The idea of minimal breaks between acts (they are effectively segue-d) gives the impression of a sequence of tableaux. The sense of juxtaposition of episodes is thus more filmic than anything else. All this is accomplished in record time because of a minimal set, which means minimal effort at scene changes. Basically, there’s a chair and a pile of books – not necessarily at the same time – multiple curtains and not a whole lot else. Not, in theory, a bad idea, as it might serve to force the focus onto Verdi’s musical genius. In practice, the conception is not really strong enough to carry through its intent. Part of the problem is Michael Hofstetter’s conducting, although it is in keeping with the general concept. His speeds are uniformly rapid, and all credit to ENO’s orchestra for not only keeping up but, in the strings, articulating with such unanimity. Coupled with the cuts and the lack of space/reorientation between acts, the effect is breathless indeed. It is difficult to really engage with this Violetta and Alfredo. Violetta’s demise is no long drawn-out affair, but a walked exit off the stage into darkness.

Those curtains peel away to reveal more machinations of plot until the end of Violetta. More tinkerings: Doctor Grenvil appears prematurely (and silently) to give an injection to Violetta after she faints in the first act. I pity the poor people in the stalls (for once) as nowhere is safe. Ensembles can be split between stage and stalls; characters make their way across the front of the auditorium, making audience members scramble to get their bags out of the way. Alfredo, rarely separated from a book, is the height of nerdishness – in fairness, he sits on the cusp of nerd-chic. Giorgio uses his young daughter to impress guilt upon Violetta; he is a violent bully, if one that feels immediate guilt. Perhaps he deserves the gun that Violetta pulls on him. Is this Verdi, or is it some sort of easy-to-digest travesty?. Whatever the liberties habitually taken by today’s directors, surely the score is sacrosanct. Well, not here and to shred it in this way is, is it not, tantamount to saying that the production team knows better that Verdi?.

The singing, though, was generally excellent, and nowhere more so than from the astonishing soprano, Corinne Withers. How wonderful to see a singer who looks the part (small, dainty, beautiful) and who can deliver the goods. Coloratura is masterly despatched – “Sempre libera” held no terrors for her – so, too are the highpoints (the climactic “Love me, Alfredo”). Throwing characters into relief as this production does is asking a lot, and Withers is more than up to the task. This was her ENO debut (she has taken on Violetta previously in Hong Kong); one can only hope for regular return trips. Tenor Ben Johnson’s Alfredo was not in the major league in terms of vocal strength but he has a pleasing voice and, if not matching his Violetta’s all-consuming excellence, he made a creditable fist of the role. The “Libiamo” had some vim and plenty of enthusiasm. Antony Michaels-Moore’s Giorgio might well grow in stature as the run continues. Here, he seemed a little strained vocally, especially in the higher reaches. The smaller roles were well taken as befits a company opera house. Grenvil appears in his proper place in the last act, but he is tipsy (or more). Martin Lamb threw himself into this idea. Clare Presland was a fine Flora.

This is not a production to see as your first Traviata. It is not complete; time and place are effectively removed. It is a skeletal Traviata that seeks to reveal Verdi’s core. But this core needs its flesh; the heart of the opera needs to beat. I urge all lovers of this opera to at least see it, however. Purists may never forgive Konwitschny and may flee home to their DVDs of traditionalist approaches. After my flurry at the Royal Opera House, though, with the same production and multiple casts, it has to be said that there was a refreshing slant to this that was, at the very least, thought-provoking. And even if you hate the staging, Corinne Winters will enchant.

Colin Clarke