Monday 16 October 2006

Review of La Traviata

ENO’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata is traditional, in the sense that it is set in a 19th century milieu, but for reasons best known to the ENO management the new production is set in 19th century Dublin. Conall Morrison’s production overlays Verdi’s story with an added gloss; Violetta is a Roman Catholic, the Germonts are Protestants. But before we get too worked up over this rather unnecessary addition to the plot, we had better see whether the production actually works. We saw the opera on Friday 13th October, the 6th performance in the run.

Francis O’Connor’s designs and Joan O’Clery’s costumes are undoubtedly handsome. The entire production takes place in a flexible fixed set which successfully transforms itself into the 4 locations need by the plot. Act 1 opens with the dying Violetta wandering round her empty drawing room as the Baron supervises furniture being brought in and the party starts. Violetta’s salon has huge windows which overlook an attractive skyline of Dublin.

The party itself is not a little raffish, but the costumes, with the bustles for women, make the effect rather blowsy and not a little bourgeious; it does not help that there is much swigging from bottles brought in crates (presumably Guinness). Morrison’s handling of the singers, particularly in the busy ensemble moments, is very confident and hardly betrays that this is his first opera production.

Emma Bell cut an attractive, if robust figure as Violetta. Bell’s stage demeanour meant that Violetta came across with a strong, no-nonsense streak. Bell did not look particularly ill, but then I have seen plenty of Violetta’s who did not look ill; the trick is to convey what is happening underneath. Unfortunately this robust, confidence imbued much of Bell’s musical performance, so that she failed to create the neurasthenic, nervous centre that is so necessary in this character. In Act 1, Violetta is not a little hysterical and but hysteria was a long way from Bell’s performance. I could not help comparing her to such singers as Ileana Cotrubas and Valerie Masterson, singers who were as musically capable as Bell but who created a creature of nerves under a steel exterior.

That said, Bell’s performance was a joy to listen to, she has the technique for the role. Perhaps her background in Handel and Mozart rather showed, but she is still growing into Italian opera and I look forward to hearing her develop in this role. Perhaps if Bell had had a less stolid Alfredo, sparks might have flown.

Though Dwayne Jones displayed a lovely lyric voice, he was the embodiment of a solid country boy and it was hard to believe the ardency of the sentiments that he was articulating. As with Bell, Jones did not manage to convey the strong feelings bubbling under the sensible exterior.

The smaller roles were well cast; for once Donald Maxwell did not over act and his Baron was not the pantomime villain that is often the case and Andrew Rees was an attractive Gaston.

Act 2 scene 1 took place in the conservatory of a dilapidated country house. James Westman’s Germont Pere sounded lovely, but Westman is a relatively young singer for such a role. Not only did he not really sound old enough, but also more importantly he failed to convey much of the depth that should come with age. As a result, his important scene with Bell sounded lovely and was well crafted but simply did not wring the heart.

The performance had 1 interval, which Morrison placed after Act 2, scene 1. A placing which worked well in terms of the balancing the length of the 2 halves of the performance, but there is a sense that Verdi’s drama is well served when the 2 scenes in Act 2 are played back to back, playing up the dramatic contrasts.

Flora’s party was as well staged as Violetta’s; 4 dancers mixed with the chorus to provide the visual stimulus of the entertainment. Morrison’s handling of the show down between the protagonists worked well and for once in this production I felt myself being carried away with the drama.

Morrison showed a nice sense of logical consistency when working out details. At the end of Act 1 Violetta responds formally to the Baron’s farewell greeting, giving a clear indication that they will not be sleeping together that evening (after all he is her protector). When Germont Pere arrives at Flora’s party he is properly dressed, whereas in other productions I have seen he arrives in his street clothes – something that the very correct M. Germont would never do.

But there was an area where Morrison failed in his dramatic consistency, the issue of Violetta’s Catholicism. This was hardly in evidence. Apart from one exclamation that she was a Catholic, religion was strangely absent. Even in Act 3, when the dying Violetta could reasonably be expected to have had a statue of the Virgin or a picture of the Sacred Heart by her bed, there was nothing to indicate her religion. This applied to the text as well, Stephen Clark’s new English version was heavily larded with references to God but never the Virgin, surely something a 19th century English speaking Catholic would be expected to do.

Clark’s new translation was unsatisfactory in other ways. It did not always lie easily with the music, leaving the singers with some odd underlays, and it was rather flowery at times. Also, where I knew the Italian and previous English translations, Clark did not always match them in meaning. Valerie Masterson and John Brecknock sang ‘cruel but blissful’ for ‘croce delizia’ whereas Clark gave Bell and Jones ‘Sadness and beauty’, which rather reduces the intensity of the expression.

The singers projected the translation admirably, we hardly needed the surtitles. So it was unfortunate that Clark’s text rather added to the under-boiled nature of the whole performance.

For Act 3, the set was got up as a tenement, complete with other inhabitants. But Bell died convincingly and movingly, this final scene went a long way to mollifying my concerns over the performance. It was not as searing as I would have liked, but I certainly wasn’t bored as can happen sometimes in this act when the performance goes awry.

Jonathan Darlington helped the ENO orchestra to accompany the action well, but perhaps he was a little to polite, a little too understanding and a bit more drive and passion in the pit would not have come a miss.

This was a beautifully musical performance, all the singers were a joy to listen to. I just wish they had captured more of the underlying passion and heart-wringing beauty of the opera; perhaps that will come with experience.

As for the Irish setting, well having had the ideal Morrison just did not follow it through. I am convinced that the production will become stronger in revivals if a staff producer can be persuaded to remove the Protestant/Catholic divide and stick to the basics in what is a very attractive production. It did not help that the programme book was full of information about the Irish relgious divide and life in Dublin, do we need to know this in a production of Traviata?

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