United Kingdom Verdi, La traviata (revival premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Simon Phillippo, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 11.2.2014 (GPu)
Violetta Valéry: Linda Richardson
Alfredo Germont: Peter Sonn
Giorgio Germont: Alan Opie
Flora: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Annina: Sian Meinir
Baron Douphol: Jack O’Kelly
Marquis of Obigny: Philip Lloyd Evans
Doctor Grenvil: Martin Lloyd
Gaston: Howard Kirk
Giuseppe: Michael Clifton Thomas
Flora’s Servant: Laurence Cole
A Messenger: George Newton-Fitzgerald
Dancers: Esther Fuge, Joanna Jeffries, Sophia McGregor, Jenna Sloan,
Gordon Brandie, Nicholas Keegan, Ashley James Orwin
Director: David McVicar
Revival Director: Sarah Crisp
Designer: Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Original Choreographer: Andrew George
Revival Choreographer: Colm Seery
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
David McVicar’s production of La traviata, a co-production for Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona, can, I suppose, be described as ‘traditional’. That is fine, provided that the adjective is not understood, as it sometimes seems to be intended to be understood in some critical circles, as a euphemism for old-fashioned, dull and unintelligent. What I intend in calling it traditional is to say that it is a production which seems to have grown from an attentive, sensitive and (yes) intelligent response to Verdi’s music and the words of librettist Francesco Maria Piave rather than having started from a concept not wholly inherent in words or music and shoehorned them to ‘fit’ (or not) within that concept.
Though by no means merely gloomy, McVicar’s production, as revived on this occasion by Sarah Crisp, is death-haunted throughout; everything happens to ensure that the audience (even if one imagines an audience who didn’t already know the plot) has an all-pervading sense of the outcome. It is a production which seeks, rather like Shakespeare prefacing Romeo and Juliet with a chorus (in the form of a sonnet) informing the audience, before they have seen or met a single character, that they are to witness the story of a “pair of star-crossed lovers … / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows” will lead to their death. So, in this production of Verdi’s great love tragedy, 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 precisely who this character was, but would surely grasp his general significance) walks slowly and forlornly across the front of the stage. It is a haunting image which colours all that follows and an audience’s reaction to it. In doing so, of course, the production ‘merely’ reinforces what is implicit in Verdi’s music: the orchestral prelude opens, after all, with, in Julian Budden’s words ‘the diaphanous blend of divisi violins, which will characterise the invalid of Act III’. The overture completed and the stage properly visible for the first time the heavy drapes seem both luxurious and suffocating; gradually (if seated in an appropriate part of the theatre) 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 continues to illuminate things in La Traviata. This was the third occasion on which I had seen the production and this was the one I found most moving. This, for me, is the nearest thing to an operatic ‘weepie’, much more so than La Bohème.
Violetta, this time around, was Linda Richardson. As an actress and stage presence, she isn’t, I think, the equal of Joyce Ek-Khoury, who was the Violetta in the 2012 version of this production. Richardson wasn’t the most flirtatious or seductive of Violettas and there wasn’t much sense of real chemistry between her and Peter Sonn’s Alfredo, but vocally Richardson’s singing was more purely moving than I remember El-Khoury’s to have been two years ago. Richardson certainly came into her own in the later stages of the opera, utterly believable and genuinely moving. Peter Sonn’s voice (he is Austrian) is more Germanic than Italianate in tone and it will perhaps be in the German repertoire that he will make his most lasting mark. But the voice is well-structured and finely controlled, a voice capable of some moments of real beauty. As stage interpretations of character go, both this Violetta and this Alfredo were comprehensively outshone by Alan Opie’s tremendous reading of Giorgio, vocally subtle, beautifully exact (without mere pedantry) in the delineation of textual meaning and, above all, compellingly human. Rarely have I liked a Giorgio so much or cared so much about his feelings.
The minor roles (so often a problem these days as budgets get stretched) were all at the very least adequate. Jack O’Kelly was a properly pompous Baron Douphol, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones a colourful Flora and Sian Meinir a moving Annina (the last two ‘elevated’ from the chorus). The chorus (though this is not an opera in which Verdi does anything like as much as he sometimes does with the chorus) were up to the usual high standards of this company, always thoroughly competent in what they did and often rather more than merely competent. The orchestra were on good form and Simon Philippo’s conducting, in terms both of the beauty of sound he elicited and his ‘cooperation’ with the singers, left little to be desired.
All in all, it seems to me that this production will bear a few more revivals yet.