Review: La traviata

Helen Wallace on a whistle-stop version of Verdi's opera


La traviataCorinne Winters as Violetta. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It was gripping, stylish, sensationally sung – but, boy, was it fast. In one hour and forty minutes flat Violetta had partied, panted, eloped, parted, declined and breathed her last. What should have been the lingering decline of our consumptive, fallen courtesan became a crashing tumble off a chair. Verdi’s opera is a lesson in concision, but somehow director Peter Konwitschny, in this production at ENO, managed to dispense with nearly 20 minutes of music – plus the interval.

True, much of the ballet music is not vital to advancing the plot, but the telescoping of the story threatened to compromise its dramatic arc: time lapses are essential if we are to believe that Violetta and Alfredo have lived together for three months, or that Violetta has returned to her Paris life only to retreat into illness.

Compression is not the only problem: Konwitschny seemed keen that no intimate relationship ever grows between Alfredo (a radiantly fluent tenor Ben Johnson, pictured below) or Violetta (the fabulous soprano Corinne Winters).  If the two are fatally estranged from the moment they meet – he a duffle-coated bookworm, she a desperate party animal – where’s the tragedy in their being torn asunder? Konwitschny’s vision has its source in the words Dumas gave to Alfredo’s father in the play: ‘a union… born of the caprice of one of you and the fantasy of the other’.

La traviata ENOBut that powerful sense of Violetta’s separation, from a ruthless society and even from Alfredo, acquired momentum as the opera hurtled to its close, with Winters abandoned alone on a black stage and the Germonts, Annina and her doctor standing among the audience, wringing their hands as she dies.

This was the brutal culmination of Johannes Leiacker’s elegant, beautifully-lit design concept of layers of stage curtains, which are gradually ripped down to reveal a forest of hanging ropes. In Michael Hofstetter’s coolly understated reading of the Prelude, their graceful trompe l’oeil pleats billowed with the mesmerising movement of a Bill Viola video. In the party scenes the vicious crowd (ENO chorus on terrific form) use them to capture and smother the young lovers, and when Alfredo and Violetta are reunited for their heart-breaking aria they enact a sad dance of redrawing thin air, trying to recreate their own space in the world once again.

Another novelty in Konwitschny’s production is to bring on Alfredo’s sister, a gauche, pig-tailed school-girl, in an attempt to spark Violetta’s solidarity with the sisterhood. It has the effect of making Giorgio Germont (Anthony Michaels-Moore) seem yet more sinister, and steals some of the ambiguity from his exchanges with Violetta. Michaels-Moore, after a shaky start, produces some melting singing, particularly in his final scene, while Corinne Winters delivered a performance of white-hot intensity and consummate control, acknowledged by spontaneous applause after many arias and roaring approval at her curtain call. Hofstetter’s reading was detailed and well-paced, with resplendent brass, if lacking in some charm.

If you are looking for a short, sharp and highly sophisticated shock, this is the Traviata for you.

Verdi's 'La traviata' runs at ENO until 3 March. Photos: Tristram Kenton

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