La dame aux camélias was a mere five years old when it was transformed into the opera La traviata. And when the play version of Alexandre Dumas' novel received its premiere in 1852, Verdi almost immediately began setting it to music, completing it the following year.
This really came to mind when seeing Opera Holland Park's imaginative new production. Director Elaine Kidd transforms the action to the roaring twenties, with illuminating results. The updating reminds us that it was the second most modern play that Verdi ever set to music (only Stiffelio was newer) and replacing one decadent, hedonistic setting for another, more recent one, really does work. The ladies of the chorus are dressed as flappers and lend atmosphere to the gambling scene, which is also enlivened by a sexy Latin couple dancing a passionate, violent adaptation of a paso doble (with choreography by Sarah Fahie); this sexually charged atmosphere is exactly what was suggested by La dame aux camélias, Dumas' account of his relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis.
The opera is played with one interval in the middle of Act Two, which works surprisingly well: not only do we experience a public scene (Act One, Act Two Scene Two) juxtaposed with a private one (Act Two Scene One, Act Three) in each half, but the Prelude to Act Three becomes an interesting mime. While the scene is changed, several of the flappers remain and strip Violetta of her jewellery, piece by piece, a vivid reminder of how her entire life has been stripped away from her. The death scene itself is also directed with sensitivity, Violetta's brief recovery and optimism before total collapse showing a true knowledge of spes phthisica, the primary symptom of a person about to die of tuberculosis.
Giving a chic backdrop to this intelligent staging are the settings by Giuseppe and Emma Belli, whose glamour brought home just how central a figure in society Violetta is. The large marble columns reminded me of the Royal Opera's spectacular staging of Puccini's La rondine (also a tale of a courtesan that was set in the 1920s), while an ingeniously flexible piece of scenery became a dining table, the gambling table and the bed.
Musically, there were various flaws, but none of them marred a performance whose heart was always in the right place. Kate Ladner's rendition of Violetta showed admirable stamina throughout. She really suited the look of the production and the period costumes and wigs, and her slight reserve and iciness was a refreshing change from the clichéd restless diva. This Violetta is her own woman, and when she lets Alfredo into her world, it unsettles her; taken this way, the first-act finale was even more psychologically turbulent than normal. Ladner's voice was impressive on many levels, the part lying very well for her - the last time I saw the opera at Covent Garden, the Violetta didn't nail the D flats in 'Sempre libera' with half her ease or precision. 'Addio del passato' (performed with both verses) was equally strong, her long phrases doing justice to the low-lying tessitura of the third act. In truth, Ladner's voice could have a little more bloom, but for a young singer to perform this most demanding of roles with such confidence on a freezing night in the open air is admirable.
Tenor Seán Ruane is one of Opera Holland Park's success stories. Having come up through the ranks from a bit part in Manon Lescaut several years ago to Des Grieux in the same opera last year, he has now taken on Alfredo with estimable self-assurance. His tone quality is ideal for this music, and although he struggled quite a bit with the tricky half-turns of 'O mio rimorso' (of which only half was sung), this was a very credible performance.
The audience loved Robert Poulton's Giorgio Germont, and he certainly looked and played the part of the elderly schemer with conviction. For my taste, his voice does not have the golden lyrical quality of an Italian singer, but this was nonetheless a stylish performance.
The quality of singing in the smaller roles was mixed, but Julia Riley was a sympathetic Flora and Aled Hall managed to make an impact with Gastone's brief part in the opening scene.
For the most part, John Gibbons' account of the score was sensitively paced, though I found his style a little hyperactive (is it necessary to conduct every semiquaver beat?). I wonder whether it might have been more effective to divide the violins on either side of the conductor, as they are specifically meant to be heard playing different lines in the Prelude, for instance. More importantly, I thought it was disastrous to have the wind band in the pit in Act One when they are meant to be playing the military music behind the scenes while Violetta and Alfredo converse on the stage; they completely drowned out the singers, and Verdi's intended sonic effect was lost. Otherwise, Gibbons made this a secure and loving performance by the City of London Sinfonia.
Although this was not the perfect La traviata, such things are few and far between, and a meaningful production like this one deserves to be seen.