Inconsistent Vocals Mediated by Strong Conducting: Verdi’s La traviata at the Royal Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, La traviata: Cast, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Maurizio Benini (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 24.6.2017. (CC)

Ekaterina Bakanova (Violetta Valéry) & Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) (c) Tristram Kenton

Violette Valéry – Ekaterina Bakanova
Alfredo Germont – Atalla Ayan
Giorgio Germont – Nicola Alaimo
Flora Bervoix – Angela Simkin
Marquis d’Obigny – Jeremy White
Baron Douphol – Gyula Nagy
Doctor Grenvil – David Shipley
Gastone – Samuel Sakker
Annina – Sarah Pring
Giuseppe – Neil Gillespie
Messenger – Dominic Barrand
Servant – Jonathan Coad

Director – Richard Eyre
Revival Director – Barbara Lluch
Designs – Bob Crowley
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Director of Movement – Jane Gibson

Richard Eyre’s production is no stranger to Covent Garden, and it is no stranger to this reviewer’s pen either. To save on onerous hyperlinking, I merely direct the reader to my most recent previous review of this production (January 2017, the one with Joyce El-Khouri as Violetta), which provides an overview of several casts and conductors. Of particular note is the January 2012 review (oh go on then, for convenience, here) which was, like the present performance, also conducted by the superb Maurizio Benini. After the exquisitely shaped and superbly controlled Prelude to the first act, it was no surprise to see the orchestra so clear in their approval of Benini at the opening of the final act. Their traditional share of the applause was delayed by the orchestra itself joining in the applause for their conductor, while Benini did a creditable impression of a windmill trying to get them to stand up. They are right, of course. Benini is one of the most experienced and finest conductors of this repertoire alive, his structural grasp of the score immense. Whether some might feel the odd tempo is too slow or fast if taken out of context, everything worked perfectly in situ. Textures emerged as beautifully clean and detailed. Such freshness is just what Traviata needs, tracing the carefree part of the opening through to the dark final act.

The staging itself is well revived by Barbara Lluch. The play on perspectives—most notably perhaps in the oversize card table of the second act, but also in the “crowd scenes” of the first act—wears a little thin by now, but the lighting for the country retreat remains a treat. Strangely, the matadors seemed markedly less camp on this occasion. Who knows, perhaps in each run there is a diminuendo on the campness index as the performances go on. Previous Traviatas covered by myself have tended to be first nights.

The opera stands or falls vocally by its Violetta, here the Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanova who made her Covent Garden debut in this role in 2015, later returning to sine Musetta (Bohème) for the company. She seems to be touring Violetta as she recently took the role in Verona and will sing it later this season in Venice and Dresden. Her voice is interesting in that in its lower registers it takes on an almost mezzo-ish hue, whereas up top it can glisten, as her star turns in the first act showed. Her voice is wonderfully free, and in the final act she thinned her tone to reflect the nature of her character’s illness. Even the lap of honour around the stage immediately prior to her death—not as strange as some have claimed as moments of sudden surges of energy immediately pre-mortem do happen—was kind of convincing. It was in the affecting nature of Verdi’s writing in the final act that she shone brightest.

Her Alfredo, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan, was strongly voiced but not possessed quite of the flexibility the role demands. Worse was his stand-and-deliver mode of acting which did its best to wrench the viewer from any true involvement with the ongoing drama. “Un dì felice” was routine at best. In terms of that acting, like father, like son it would appear as Italian baritone Nicola Alaimo’s Germont père was similarly wooden and unconvincing in the crucial act 2 scenes with Violetta. There was little to convince us he was trying to sooth Violetta at “È grave il sacrifizio,” and not too much either in his similar ploy with his son (“di Provenza il mar”). The only reason we as audience were drawn in (and, judging from the fidgets, mobile phonery and coughing in the Amphitheatre, that’s not drawn in by much) was Benini’s sculpting of the action. Alaimo, making is Royal Opera debut, shares Giorgio Germont over the run with Romanian baritone George Petean.

As Annina, Sarah Pring was a superb support in the final act. Other smaller roles were well taken, starting with Samuel Sakker’s Gastone. Sakker stood in as Alfredo at the eleventh hour for this performance I covered. Interestingly, Sakker recently took on Cavaradossi Tosca for ETO; the message being, watch this space. Gyula Nagy’s Baron Douphil was solid; Jette Parker Young Artist Angela Simkin made a fine fist of Flora Bervoix.

Jeremy White is no stranger to this production and on each assumption he seems more inside the role, more sure of himself and his character of the Marquis d’Obigny. Another fine returner is Neil Gillespie as Giuseppe. If only British bass and Jette Parker Young Artist David Shipley had made a little more of his moment to shine as Doctor Grenvil.

So, a mixed evening vocally and in terms of acting, but one unified by the exemplary activity coming from the pit. The strong audience turn-out suggests this production may yet have life left in it as far as box office is concerned. Make of that what you will.

Colin Clarke

1 thought on “Inconsistent Vocals Mediated by Strong Conducting: Verdi’s <i>La traviata</i> at the Royal Opera”

  1. A slight different take on the night.

    – Bakanova/ Violetta. 9/10 Nearly perfect. Splendid in her coloratura in the first act, beautiful legato driven drama in the second act (her Amami Alfredo was also ..perfect), and indeed gorgeous third act. She goes wrong on one note at the end of the second act, but rescues it with incredible skill and timing, even in the mistake: brava. I look forward to seeing her again in Dresden later in the year.

    -Ayan/Alfredo G. Yes indeed not the greatest actor, but he does warm up to the part throughout the night, Vocally always at least competent (the least impressive moment is the Brindisi, I do not share the reviewer take on “Un di felice…”, that i found quite good really

    -Alaimo/Giorgio G. Not overly impressive, but competent vocally. Static on the scene, but not bad acting per se.

    Whilst i see where the reviewer is coming from with regard to Benini’s conducting…est modus in rebus: changes in tempo were extreme, making in my opinion Bakanova’s performance even more miracolous, and possibly excusing some of the least impressive moments of Alaimo.

    All in all i would not define the evening vocally mixed. There was one (very) bright star, and the rest was at least good.


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