Opera’s fallen woman par excellence is back at ENO. Peter Konwitschny’s production, which premiered in 2013, settles in for a short run before Thompson and Terfel take the stage in Sweeney Todd.
The setting is unspecifically modern. Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta has a Jessie J bob cut and all the men wear tuxes. The stage has been stripped to bare essentials: behind the front curtain is another red curtain. Behind that, another curtain. And another, and another…successive layers of drapes that elegantly and minimally provide all the production needs by way of set. The drapes, Violetta’s dress and the lights paint the stage in the hue of the harlot: Roxanne red. A fierce contrast is made between the sharp, makeup-intensified features of Violetta and the nondescript stubbly face of Alfredo (who oddly, in the middle of all the finery, wears an Aran cardigan and cords).
The production relies on Johannes Leiacker’s design (and its condensed running time) to attract its audiences, to set itself apart from Traviatas gone by. And it looks good, particularly for the party scenes, which have the decadence of a black tie ball. But the simplicity of design is also a problem: the bare curtains are fine for the party scenes, but don’t work as well when Violetta is meant to be in the countryside. The lack of any kind of setting as visual point of reference, combined with the big excisions that bring the running time down to under two hours mean that anyone who hasn’t seen the opera before (and ENO advertises this production as perfect for newcomers) may get a bit muddled plotwise.
Still, Leiacker’s gossamer curtain world works well, it gets across the sham of it all. Curtains and costumes, wigs and props – they are all deliberately false. Violetta’s world is theatrical; it’s not real. She is a celebrity spectacle in the image and gossip-obsessed world that she inhabits. Behind the red drapes and under the wigs are the vulnerable minds of messed-up people. Konwitschny seems to want us to look through the ephemerata of theatre, to see the person behind the persona. Everything is surface.
But it doesn’t commit to its bareness, and there is a mismatch between real and represented. The few props that are used – books, letters, a chair that gets a battering – instantly make the otherwise clean stage look messy.
Alfredo, Annina, Germont – basically all the main cast – at some point appear in the aisles of the stalls. Instead of focusing attention towards what’s happening on stage, it drains the energy out of the production: with no access to the stage (barring a hefty leap across the orchestra pit, ill-advised if only because of all those arse-impaling bows and batons should the singer fall short) the singers just have to stand awkwardly and look mournful. In the party scenes the ensemble performers dance like parents let loose in an Abba tribute concert. Tuxes and cocktail dresses suggest sophistication; the dance moves don’t.
Zharoff’s performance and her singing are mixed. Her voice hits the necessary pianissimi and fortissimi, but she clips words and puts full stops between them: ‘Is. He. The. Man’. She has something of Katharine Hepburn about her. She strides across the stage, dominates the scenes, in every way overcompensates in fear of her imminent death. But it all comes across flatly. The peak of her emotion comes in pushing over a chair. Twice. During her long, long death scene she staggers about a bit, coughs a pathetic little cough and still she won’t keel over.
The orchestra is just stunning. Under Roland Böer the dulcet strings that open the overture fill the huge coliseum with warmth, and don’t let up for the ensuing two hours.
Although Konwitschny has plucked out as many modern relevances as he can, like the tension between finding an SO who will please the parents vs falling in love and telling mum and dad to fuck their opinion, yet still the whole story takes place in a dated value system of courtesans and arranged marriages. The music stirs, the performances don’t. It’s an intelligent, but oddly cold production that puts its eggs in striking visuals rather than soul-cleansing emotion.