Verdi: La traviata

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 7 October 2011 3 stars

Marina Poplavskaya and James Valenti (© ROH/Catherine Ashmore)'All change, please!' may be the cry rising from the upper managerial echelons of the Royal Opera House this season (where Kasper Holten and John Fulljames settle in as Director and Associate Director of Opera), but those of more conservative temperament can breath a sigh of relief. The latest revival of Richard Eyre's Traviata (directed here by Harry Fehr) looks every bit as sumptuous as when it first appeared in 1994: time hasn't faded its rich golds and reds, its expensive-looking fabrics and wall-to-wall crinolines, or its striking use of light and dark. Somewhere along the way, Violetta and Alfredo's country house has gained an impressively tiled fireplace; but those oil paintings are still stacked up along the wall – awaiting hanging while the soon-to-be-doomed protagonists are otherwise engaged.

The main danger with such a 'classic' production – particularly one so frequently aired – is that (despite regular cast changes) the whiff of the everyday sets in. Jan Latham-Koenig's reading was unsentimental: brisk tempos and forward momentum always at a premium and the ROH Orchestra tightly controlled. The result was finely detailed, certainly, providing a high-definition orchestral backdrop. But with emotional excess stripped tastefully from everywhere except a few beautifully-turned solos, the orchestra risked sounding not only efficient but mechanical – ideal for all those waltzes, but harder to justify (particularly amidst such visual luxury) at moments of emotional crisis.

The latest soprano to step into the crystal-encrusted evening gown, Marina Poplavskaya, was a strikingly dark-hued Violetta. Her vocal control, remarkable as ever, was at its most astonishing in 'Addio, del passato', which in its sheer delicacy could almost have been performed by a different singer. In general, though, her instrument is simply too full-bodied to create a convincing consumptive: particularly so without histrionics of the sort Latham-Koenig seemed so keen to avoid. As love-struck Alfredo, James Valenti was more Action Man than Man of the Heart, jogging endlessly around the stage and even executing a perfect, Premier-League-style knee-skid to arrive at Violetta's feet for the climax of the Act I love duet. In places seriously underpowered vocally, he was at his best in the more intimate surrounds of Act III.

Marina Poplavskaya and James Valenti (© ROH/Catherine Ashmore)Leo Nucci, back in the role he took at the production's premiere all those years ago, was a stentorian Germont Sr. Entirely unyielding in the duet with Violetta (so often the opera's emotional centrepiece), Nucci provided a powerful, cold patriarch. While such chilliness was unexpectedly effective in the Act II finale, as Germont defends Violetta against his son's misdirected fury, elsewhere Nucci's vocal solidity created unfortunate balance problems – not least in the final ensemble, which he dominated throughout. In the smaller roles, Ji-Min Park (Gastone) and Sarah Pring (Annina) made fine contributions, with Pring adding great poignancy to the final act.

In sum, then, this was little more than a routine performance. The audience applauded enthusiastically enough, and there was even the odd sniff as tragedy ran its course. But the epidemic of coughing that broke out in the final scene spoke less of sympathy for opera's first consumptive heroine than of mild boredom. Eyre's no-expenses spared vision may have become classic, but is also of its time. If this revival is anything to go by, attempts to map an emotionally more economical reading of the score onto such opulent surroundings will merely see its audience vaguely unsatisfied, its pockets full of dry, unrumpled tissues. In his programme book blurb, Tony Hall introduces this ROH season as an economically-challenged 'New Era': perhaps a good time for a new Traviata?

By Flora Willson

Photos © ROH/Catherine Ashmore