Sunday 3 February 2013

La Traviata - Peter Konwitschny -ENO

Ben Johnson, Corinne Winters and chorus ENO La Traviata (c) Tristram Kenton Feb 2013
Ben Johnson, Corinne Winters and chorus
ENO La Traviata (c) Tristram Kenton
English National Opera's new production of Verdi's La traviata is a co-production with Opera Graz. Peter Konwitschny's production was seen there in 2011 and has already been filmed. It has now opened at the London Coliseum (2 February 2013) with a new cast, and represents Konwitschny's debut in the UK, with Michaela Baluensteiner as assistant director and Johannes Leiacker as designer. In a strong cast, American soprano Corinne Winters, making her European debut, sang Violetta, ENO Harewood Artist Ben Johnson made his debut as Alfredo and Anthony Michaels-Moore sang Giorgio Germont. The conductor was Michael Hofstetter, principal conductor at Graz. 

Konwitschny's view of the opera is a stripped down one, the piece is cut so that it runs without intervals lasting just under two hours and Leiacker's set is similarly reduced to basics, just curtains with a chair and pile of books as the sole props. In an interview printed in the programme Konwitschny says that  'La traviata is not a love story but the story of a woman who discovers she is dying and who refuses to accept that fact. She effectively uses this man as a partner in her struggle to delay her own death.' The way Konwitschny has cut the piece places greater emphasis on Violetta and has her on stage virtually throughout.

Few performances of La traviata are done uncut, most companies cut the repeats of verses and such like. But Konwitschny's cuts go far further. In Act 3, we lose the off-stage carnival chorus, plus the dialogue between Annina and Violetta about how much money they have. This moment is not only poignant, but leaves you wondering what will happen to Annina when Violetta dies; without it Annina is a cypher. But the biggest loss is in Act 2, scene 3; gone are all references to the duel, as well as all the party entertainments. Now, I can think of plenty of productions in which these party entertainments seem to be out of all proportion to the plot (notably Zeferelli's overblown production at the New York Met). But the cuts leave the scene feeling lop-sided.

Composers like Verdi write operas with a strong grasp of the structural nature of the scenes and acts, they don't just write a string of arias which can be moved around willy nilly. The result of Konwitschny's cuts was to give a strong musical and dramatic lurch from Act 2 scene 1 to scene 2, it felt as if you had put the wrong DVD on and missed an entire chunk of the opera. Konwitschny might have cut Verdi's music but it was still there, like an amputated limb. 

Whilst Konwitschny may have had very good reasons for the cuts, I did rather come away thinking that he'd cut any extraneous material which did not fit with his view of the opera. Something of this can be gleaned from his plot summary printed in the programme. Regarding the end of act 1, 'Love would be a fine thing, but how could this work in a world concerned only with venality? In the midst of her philosophical and at the same time erotic reflections, Alfredo again points the finger of blame, whereupon she flounces off with a furious coloratura flourish.' 

Leiacker's set was similarly cut back and plain, just lots of curtains. As the curtains rose at the beginning, they revealed another curtain (red) which was used as a prop in Act 1, opening and closing, people's heads appearing and disappearing. As the opera progressed, more and more curtains were opened, deepening the stage until at the end of Act 2, the cast pull all the curtains down. This leaves one set at the very back, and a plain stage for Act 3. During Alfredo and Violetta's duet when they imagine leaving Paris, the Ben Johnson and Corinne Winters re-enacted drawing the now non-existent curtains back across the stage. The connotations were clear, but frankly it looked a bit stupid. Then at the end, the final set of curtains are drawn back and as Violetta died, Winters walked up-stage into the black. An effective theatrical image, or a time-worn cliche depending on your point of view.

The way the curtains were used had unfortunate connotations and showed that the production had not originated in the UK. This is because quite simply at various times, such as when Annina (Valerie Reed) popped her head through the gap, when Ben Johnson failed to find the exit during the party scene or when Anthony Michaels-Moore hid himself in the curtain instead of going off stage, I rather expected Eric and Ernie to appear. The mise-en-scene was simply too close to their style of vaudeville for comfort.

Costumes were loosely 1950's with the chorus in black evening wear, with cocktail dresses for the women. Violetta, however, wore a series of bobbed wigs which, I have on good authority, was a style not common in that era.

Konwitschny belongs to the school of thought where the action is happening now, in the theatre. He is not interested in re-creating a particular era, and uses the theatre itself as a metaphor in his productions. When Alfredo sings off-stage at the end of Act 1, Ben Johnson appeared and sang from the stalls, clambering amongst the audience in what must have been a highly disturbing and annoying manner. Then at the end of Act 3, when Germont, the Doctor and Alfredo are present as Violetta is dying, Winters was left alone on stage and Anthony Michaels-Moore, Martin Lamb and Ben Johnson were again in the stalls (cue more clambering in the stalls).

But Konwitschny has interesting things to say about the opera, and his solutions are genuine attempts to sort out a problem with the work. Verdi wanted a cutting edge modern subject, and was keen to set the piece in the present day. The problem for modern directors is that the subject matter is now rather less shocking and the whole raison d'etre of the scene between Giorgio Germont and Violetta is based on the sort of sentimentality and moral attitudes which are no longer common. It is simply not possible to transport La traviata into the 20th or 21st century and make it work convincingly. The other problem is that Verdi wrote some fine romantic music, yes he veers daringly towards realism at times, but he imbues Violetta and Alfredo with a glow of romance via the music he writes for them.

Konwitschny did his best to give the work something of an edge, during Sempre libera Winters was clearly on edge, and even managed to fall of a chair. As I have discussed above, Konwitschny's staging of Alfredo's interruptions was certainly anti-romantic and Alfredo was presented as a cardigan-wearing, rather intense nerd. Konwitschny did not encourage you to view their relationship through romance-tinted glasses, for him Alfredo is simply a way out for Violetta. I'm not sure though, that Verdi's music quite supports this.

Anthony Michaels-Moore and Corinne Winters  ENO La Traviata (c) Tristram Kenton Feb 2013
Anthony Michaels-Moore and Corinne Winters
ENO La Traviata (c) Tristram Kenton Feb 2013
Similarly, in the great scene between Violetta and Giorgio Germont, Konwitschny introduces a girl, Alfredo's sister (Kezhe Julian Temir), clearly very young and seemingly too immature for Giorgio Germont's comments about her being in love with a young man. There was much by-play between Michaels-Moore and Temir, with Temir being used as a prop. The key moment was when Michaels-Moore got angry and struck Temir, thus engendering sympathy from Winters and enabling the conclusion of the scene to be played with some degree of credibility. Not.

I'm sorry, but it just didn't work, and came over as a device. Michaels-Moore also rather torpeoed it by producing some of the most outstanding, beautiful and superbly shaped singing of the evening, showing what a great Verdi singer he can be and giving Giorgio Germont a nobility that seemed at odds with the konzept.

But you can't simply say that you thought the performances were superb, whilst the production was rubbish, because the two are intimately bound up in each other. Konwitschny and his assistant assistant director Michaela Blauensteiner got superbly intense performances from all the cast. This production only works via the vividness and intensity of the playing of the key players, and here Konwitschny had achieved brilliant things.

Winters is a lyric soprano, but one with the resources to no only sing La traviata without an interval but to take her through Act 3 with flying colours. Her coloratura in Act 1 was far more than creditable. A feeling of desperation crept into her performance occasionally, but this was on a par with the general rather hard edge to this whole scene. She did everything asked of her and more, and was simply mesmerizing. She has a quite a bright voice, without excessive vibrato so that it was a beautifully clean expressive performance. She and Michaels-Moore were on fully equal terms in the Act 2 duet, this both giving us some of the best Verdi singing I have heard in a long time. 

And the final act just would not have worked without Winters strong, but beautifully crafted performance. I remember Josephine Barstow once talking about sopranos either being an Act 1, Act 2 or Act 3 soprano in La traviata. Winters is an Act 3 soprano, but she built her performance from the firm foundations in other acts. I do hope that we hear her again soon in the UK.

Michaels-Moore gave us a finely sung, but also strongly acted Giorgio Germont. His performance showed us a deeply conflicted man, all done via some strongly shaped singing without a hint of bluster, wobble or vamping. 

If I say that Ben Johnson made a very creditable debut as Alfredo, that is not to put his performance down. I have heard very, very few Alfredos who are creditable. Johnson made the complete nerd, just as Konwitschny required. It was an interesting premise, and Johnson showed the character developing throughout the opera. If his voice lacked the italianita which would be idea in the role, he was technically secure and showed admirable freedom in the vocal line. This was a strong debut from a singer whose previous roles here have been Don Ottavio and Nemorino. 

The supporting cast were all strong, with Valerie Reid as Annina, Clare Presland as Flora, Paul Hopwood as Gaston, Mattew Hargreaves as the Baron, Charles Johnston as D'Obigny, Marin Lamb as the Doctor, David Newman as the servant and Paul Sheehan as the Messenger.

The chorus has a very important part to play in the production. It was very much Konwitschny's concept that Violetta's life be lived amidst the prurient fascination of the mob, and from their very first entry the chorus was the epitome of human nastiness, partying away, sending up Alfredo, more interested in Violetta's health problems than helping her. This was life in the nastiest of goldfish bowls. 

The chorus were deprived of their traditional opportunity to show off in Act 2, scene 2, but they contributed strongly everywhere else and clearly were enjoying themselves in the conflagration with which Konwitschny  finished Act 3.

Michael Hofstetter conducted sympathetically and sensitively. He did rather bring out the brittle edge in the music, particularly in the party scenes, which seemed a feature of this production; emphasising that these people were partying on the edge of the abyss. But in the more intimate scenes he displayed a nice feel for shaping Verdi's music and allowing the necessary flexibility that the singers needed, without being too over indulgent.

This is not a production for every day, and probably not one to take your elderly aunt to. Konwitschny has a particular view of La traviata and with his superb cast, vividly achieved a truly intense and dramatic evening. Along the way, we had some of the best Verdi singing to have been heard in the London Coliseum for a long time. For once, I did not just come out singing the production.

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