Covent Garden’s latest La traviata revival showcases Pretty Yende’s Violetta which is one for the ages

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Giacomo Sagripanti (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2.4.2022. (CC)

Stephen Costello (Alfredo) & Dimitri Platanias (Giorgio Germont) © Tristram Kenton

Director – Sir Richard Eyre
Revival Director – Bárbara Lluch
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting designer – Jean Kalman
Director of Movement – Jane Gibson

Violetta Valéry – Pretty Yende
Alfredo Germont – Stephen Costello
Giorgio Germont – Dimitri Platanias
Flora Bervoix – Angela Simkin
Marquis D’Obigny – Jeremy White
Baron Douphol – Germán E. Alcántara
Doctor Grenvil – David Shipley
Annina – Kseniia Nikolaieva
Gastone de Letorières – Andrés Presno
Messenger – John Bernays
Servant – Thomas Barnado

Not the Royal Opera House’s first rodeo for Richard Eyre’s production of La traviata: this production was first seen in November 1994, nearly 28 years ago. It clearly fulfils its function, as this was a packed house (as I assume many other performances this year will be). It also gives a static canvas against which to compare and contrast a multitude of casts: most recently December 2019. The performance covered in January 2019 (review click here) brought a fabulous coupling of Ermonela Jaho and Charles Castronova as the lovers (a significant improvement over Jaho’s January 2012 I saw and heard). In June 2017, it was the great conductor Maurizio Benini who saw the performance through. Lest it be thought that January 2012 was this reviewer’s first Traviata, perish the thought: that came (I think) in October 2011, with the great Leo Nucci as Germont père. There has been drama, with Samuel Sakker saving the day because of an indisposed Samir Pirgu as Alfredo in January 2016 … and the odd mismatch between characters, such as, one might argue, on Saturday 2 April 2022.

The production certainly has its strengths: the projections of the opening, the skewed perspectives (which admittedly pale after a while), all underpinned by a traditionalist basis. There is no doubt we are at a party in the first part of the first act; the country seat is well delivered in the second, while the gambling scene cannot fail to delight through its camp-as-chips dancing toreadors. Perfect for more than a quarter century of performances, one might argue – but is it too controversial to suggest it’s time for a change?

Talking of changes to the production, there were a couple. I don’t know if I was imagining the lighting as less bright in the first act, but certainly Giorgio Germont in the second act has not been so static (in a chair for his dialogues) before – could that be a mobility-driven issue, I wonder?

For all of the excellence of some cast members, I wonder if what remains in the memory of those who were at this performance is the spectacular audience member nose-blow right at the quiet end of the Prelude, nicely dissonant to the home key. Humour aside, it was mightily interruptive, but I wonder if I would have minded more if the Prelude to the first act had been better shaped? The performances of Traviata under Benini mentioned above have been transformative experiences as he hears the music on the large scale as well as looking after the detail; this was far less than anything transformative. Under Giacomo Sagripanti’s direction it was all far more hit-and-miss, with some phrase endings not just tapering off, but stopping, resulting in the loss of the ongoing line. Parts of the choral work were scrappy, too.

Pretty Yende (Violetta Valéry) © Tristram Kenton

So, to the cast. Pretty Yende is one of three Violettas this time round, with Hrachuhí Bassénz (of 2019 performances) another and Angel Blue a third (there are even two occasions where, should one wish, one could experience two Violettas on one day at Covent Garden: April 9 features Angel Blue at the matinée and Yende in the evening; April 18 has Yende doing the matinée with Bassénz on the night shift). Yende is a star, without doubt, and in the finest sense of the word. Her stage presence is huge, her technique superb. She has all the mobility for Verdi’s demands but the dramatic ability to make every word count (‘E strano!’ was gripping, just those two words; and how tender the ‘Ah fors’ è lui’, with the vocal fireworks positively alight). Yende was, in the first act, radiant; her way with Giorgio Germont in the second act was brilliant, more resolute than most in her belief in her love for Alfredo, and unyielding for longer, convincingly emotionally blanched in her responses, before caving in to Giorgio’s demands and offering the most brilliant decline, sudden rise then sudden fall in the final act. It is an assumption of the role that now takes premiere place in all of the Traviatas I have seen at Covent Garden, or elsewhere. Her voice is extraordinarily pure and clear; she sings Pamina later this year at the Opéra Bastille, and one can already hear how snug a fit that role will be for her voice. Just the odd slight – slight – loss of tone at the lower end is the only minor caveat, but Yende’s Violetta is one for the ages.

Ah, for a cast that is uniformly great, but her Alfredo, Stephen Costello, was lacking on a couple of major fronts. Vocally, he lacks heft for the role, although to his credit, Sagripanti ensured he was always at least mostly audible from the back of the stalls. But as an actor and in general demeanour, he came across as a nice guy with little stage presence; certainly not someone who would cause so much angst for Violetta, sadly. This was a safe, somewhat vanilla Alfredo.

It was Dimitri Platanias’s Giorgio Germont that was the only other role that came anywhere near Yende’s Violetta. An experienced singer, Platanias succeeded spectacularly in making us dislike Germont père‘s manipulations in the second act; and when it came to the final act, one could see that although the words were coming out that he saw the error of his ways, there was still an internal struggle going on in there. A masterclass in vocal acting – really, it was all there in his fabulous, strong voice.

David Shipley’s Doctor Grenvil is worthy of note, a fabulous voice, a perhaps surprisingly young-looking doctor (although they say when the doctors start looking younger that’s a sign of age …). It was great to be introduced to the rich mezzo-soprano of Kseniia Nikolaieva as Annina, her voice of contralto-like richness. Germán E. Alcántara’s Baron Douphol is a known quantity, the singer fully entrenched into the role; ditto Jeremy White as Marquis D’Obigny. All supporting roles, in fact, were superbly taken, but there is no getting away from the lack of chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo. But instead of ending on a sour note, let’s celebrate the real positive here: Pretty Yende’s awe-inspiring take on Violetta, rethought from the ground up, considered at each and every turn, unfailingly convincing.

Colin Clarke

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