While English National Opera has excelled for many years in Janacek, Britten and more unusual repertoire, they’ve struggled with effective modern interpretations of the great classics. Now, with Calixto Bieito’s recent bashed-up Mercedes Carmen and Peter Konwitschny’s invigorating and often surprising new La traviata, they seem to be on the right track.
As with any radical approach to a much-loved work, it’s not going to please everyone, not least because it slices away sections of the music to create an unbroken sequence of images that come in at just 110 minutes. This hardly seems necessary with Verdi’s tightly-wrought score but the streamlining does facilitate a direct and uncluttered telling of the familiar tale.
What will upset some is the complete lack of a lavish, belle époque or similar setting with, instead, sets of the utmost simplicity: a series of curtains within curtains that peel away in layers and look throughout like an interlude played front of tabs while the main set never materializes.
The production is not free from the odd, inexplicable director’s tic, such as Alfredo clambering over the front row of audience, panto-style (not once but twice), and much of the final scene taking place in the auditorium, completely lost to anyone seated in the further reaches of the house. It’s all very nice for those in the posh seats, who get to be up close with the singers, but is disrespectful to those who, despite having paid less for their tickets, still deserve to see the full show.
Corinne Winters, petite and pretty, is a more than promising Violetta. She’s most effective as the Luluesque frenetic doll of the first act, when she can launch herself across the orchestra pit but much of the words and notes are lost in the intimate scenes in a performance that is just not big enough for a house the size of the Coliseum. Size is also an issue with Ben Johnson’s duffel-coated, tubby nerd of an Alfredo, although his bright tenor cuts through the gloom more effectively.
Anthony Michaels-Moore is an authoritative Germont père. The emotional blackmail in his tale of woe of a daughter compromised by her brother’s indiscreet behaviour is emphasised by having the girl present. He produces her like a rabbit from a hat to seal the arrangement by making Violetta’s tart’s heart melt with compassion. The fact that she’s a pig-tailed child, destined for a socially arranged marriage, gives the father the appearance of a pimp and he’s not averse to brutal violence when she doesn’t play along.
Konwitschny saves his big set-piece for the third act, set in a Parisian gaming room, where he goes in for full-blown stylization. Rows of chorus flick playing cards into the air and walk backwards, and the act ends in an apocalyptic vision, marking an extreme contrast with the bareness of the domestic scenes.
His idiosyncratic approach may look as though it’s de-sentimentalising the work but, built on the premise that the prostitute is “the only human being” in it, it’s actually as romanticized as any Hollywood rom-com. Some will say, given ENO’s current financial situation, they should be playing safe with a banker like La traviata (viz. the ever-revivable Flutes and Barbers of Hytner, Miller et al) but this is much more what 21st Century opera should be.