Wednesday 25 October 2023

Fierce & intense: Peter Konwitschny's production of La traviata returns to ENO with a mesmerising account of the title role from Nicole Chevalier

Verdi: La Traviata - Nicole Chevalier, Freddie Tong, ENO Chorus - English National Opera (Photo: Belinda Jiao)
Verdi: La Traviata - Nicole Chevalier, Freddie Tong, ENO Chorus - English National Opera (Photo: Belinda Jiao)

Verdi: La traviata; Nicole Chevalier, Jose Simerilla Romero, Roland Wood, director: Peter Konwitschny/Ruth Knight, conductor: Richard Farnes; English National Opera at London Coliseum
Reviewed 23 October 2023

Dystopic, concentrated and intense, Peter Konwitschny takes a strong view of La Traviata here in a highly theatrical yet musical revival with a superb trio of soloists

My first experience with Verdi's La traviata was the John Copley production at the London Coliseum back in the 1980s. Extremely traditional yet well crafted, the production was eventually replaced by one by David Pountney. Since then English National Opera has had various production of the work, yet none has quite stuck, none has created the sort of long running popular production of this work that any company needs. Daniel Kramer's 2018 production proved unpopular and the company has now reverted to the earlier one directed by Peter Konwitschny which debuted in 2013 and returned in 2015 [see my review]. 

This production takes a very particular view of the work, contemporary and stylised, it uses a cut version of the score (all the party scene entertainment at the beginning of Act Two disappears) without an interval. It isn't a production of La traviata for the ages, but with the right cast and conductor it engages and makes you think, and in ENO's current economic state, creating a new production is clearly out of the question.

Peter Konwitschny's production of Verdi's La Traviata returned to English National Opera at the London Coliseum on Monday 23 October 2023, now in the hands of director Ruth Knight, with designs by Johannes LeiackerNicole Chevalier was Violetta with Jose Simerilla Romero as Alfredo and Roland Wood as Giorgio Germont, Richard Farnes conducted.

The view of the opera is a fierce one, the party guests in Act One are almost vicious, this wasn't a fun event and there is no party in Act Two, scene two gets down to the action with Violetta, Alfredo and the Baron straight away. Musically, this was a very direct performance, very modern in the sense that we got the score with none of the bel canto interpolations like added high notes. Thank goodness.

Verdi: La Traviata - Nicole Chevalier - English National Opera (Photo: Belinda Jiao)
Verdi: La Traviata - Nicole Chevalier - English National Opera (Photo: Belinda Jiao)

The production seemed to be somewhat adjusted from previous revivals, at least some details seemed new and the Morecombe and Wise elements of heads popping out from the red curtains had been minimised, which is a good thing.

Nicole Chevalier made a mesmerising Violetta. She has a lyric voice, and her performance grew in stature as the opera progressed. The long scene that concludes Act One had none of the showing off elements, this was focused and intent with expressive rather than showy passagework, all in all completely in keeping with the production's approach. During Act Two, Chevalier's performance developed and Violetta's character deepened. She produced finely shaped phrases yet remained intense and expressive at all times. What was impressive was the way that in the second act, Violetta's desperation grew yet Chevalier never pushed the vocal line into excess. And during the second scene of this act, Chevalier and director Ruth Knight seemed to be suggesting that a lot of the action was really in Violetta's head, the opera was about her mental (as much as physical) disintegration. In Act Three, Chevalier's 'Addio, del passato' was simply breath-taking, sitting almost motionless at the front of the stage she knocked us flat. And the ending remained powerful, intense and, as always in this production, very theatrical.

Jose Simerilla Romero made an engaging Alfredo. Romero played him as a self-absorbed, nerdy poet. There was an element of Romantic swagger, but it was minimised and Romero successfully got over the problems of Alfredo appearing to be completely dim. This was an intelligent performance that complemented and fed into Chevalier's Violetta. Romero has an elegant voice, and he sings with not a little style; you hope that he takes a tenor like Alfredo Kraus as a role model rather than pushing his voice. Like Chevalier, he could spin a line elegantly and still be expressive and intense. The final duet with Chevalier's Violetta was powerful stuff indeed, because in this production the two do not really connect, Alfredo remained separate, yet the two artists turned in intense, highly musical and moving performance.

Roland Wood made Giorgio Germont rather less abrasive than some. He still brought his younger daughter to the encounter in Act Two, which I still think is a mistake. Wood made Germont distinguished, yet lacking in comprehension, the scene with Chevalier's Violetta was simply two worlds colliding and not intersecting. Wood's sheer personality and magnetism made this Germont a strong character without him having to bluster. This was a finely musical performance and he elicited much sympathy. This continued in the second scene of Act Two where the emphasis was on disappointed expectations rather than fierceness. 

Around these three the production assembled a strong supporting cast. Zwakele Tshabala made a fine Gastone indeed, bringing personality to the small role and impressing with his command of the style, whilst Freddie Tong was a wonderfully fierce, unlovable Baron. Patrick Alexander Keefe made an elegant-looking Marchese and I look forward to seeing him in larger roles here, whilst Jonathan Lemalu was luxury casting as the highly sympathetic Doctor. 

Sarah-Jane Lewis was a wonderfully brisk and no-nonsense Annina, the sort of person always to have around in a crisis, whilst Amy Holyland's Flora was a real piece of work, definitely much more than just the musical side-kick that can be the case here.

The cast all worked hard at getting Martin Fitzpatrick's rather functional translation across, and I was impressed at how many words Chevalier in particular seemed to be able to project, at least as far as the mid-stalls. You just wished that they had something a little more poetic to work with.

Verdi: La Traviata - David Webb, Patrick Alexander Keefe, Jonathan Lemalu, Amy Holyland - English National Opera (Photo: Belinda Jiao)
Verdi: La Traviata - David Webb, Patrick Alexander Keefe, Jonathan Lemalu, Amy Holyland - English National Opera (Photo: Belinda Jiao)

The chorus was hard working here, this is a very physical production and they both looked and sounded on top form. Richard Farnes in the pit showed what Verdian style can be, and he and the orchestra produced a sophisticated and elegantly expressive account of the score. Farnes kept things moving, yet it always felt open and spacious with every phrase finely done. A real pleasure to listen to.

At the end, Richard Farnes brought the whole orchestra on-stage to join the chorus and cast, all rightly getting tumultuous applause. A much needed gesture of support and recognition.

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