By engaging Anna Netrebko as Violetta, Jonas Kaufmann as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont père, Covent Garden has certainly gone to town on the casting budget; this may be its tenth revival, but until now, Sir Richard Eyre's production of Verdi's La traviata for the Royal Opera hasn't been as lavishly cast since it was unveiled with Angela Gheorghiu and Leo Nucci in 1994. And the standing ovations at the end would seem to suggest that the performance had struck the ideal balance between the work's emotional weight and the technical demands required to carry it out.
However, although this was a memorable night, it was far from perfect. For me, the production does not deserve its reputation as one of the jewels in the company's crown, and in particular, Bob Crowley's sets do the piece few favours. In Act I, Violetta's salon is a kind of rotunda raised above the floor with stairs leading down either side. The chorus is cruelly cramped into the space so that there's no opportunity for an illustration of society whirling round Violetta's head as she succumbs to the delirium caused by her tuberculosis. I found it laughable when a single couple was seen dancing on the spot in the background during the scene between Alfredo and Violetta in the middle of the act, and the smaller (but crucial) characters were very difficult to distinguish amidst the crush. I also thought (as on previous occasions of seeing the production) the projected images of nineteenth-century ladies on the curtain during the Prelude were rather a missed opportunity - we could have had the contrast between the gaiety of Violetta's life and the tragedy of her consumption more tellingly illustrated, as they are in the music. Nor does the appearance of Violetta in a spotlight through the curtain add anything to the experience, where it might have immediately focussed the audience on the fact that she is dying; this would have come together nicely with the party scene that follows. Personally, I'd rather have nothing going on and be allowed just to listen to the drama in Verdi's music.
Act II is no better. The first scene is fairly two-dimensional and pushes the action to the front of the stage too much. At this performance, many entrances and exits were bungled, for instance Kaufman's over-slamming of the door causing it to remain open and his aggression on leaving at the end of the scene causing his father's hat to drop onto the floor; nor did Giorgio Germont really loom out of the background with the sinister edge suggested by the chromatic movement of the music. Far worse is the second scene. The card table is far too big, so that there is again too little opportunity for the singers to circulate and allow the private dramas to emerge out of public situations. Germont père's entrance was very badly lit, which undermined the singer's impact, and far too little is still made of the all-important challenge to a duel made by the Baron at the end of the scene (it's much more clearly punctuated in Marta Domingo's production, recently reviewed on DVD here). On the plus side, this scene does have some period atmosphere, and the placing of Violetta at the front of the stage keeps her apart so that her solo lines in the concertato are easy to focus upon. But for all its charm, this is not powerful theatre. Interestingly, the conclusion of the third act has been changed for this revival: no longer does Violetta go on her 'lap of honour' around the room when she briefly regains her strength moments before her death (spes phthisica). Instead, the lights are turned up (quite bizarrely, in my opinion) and Violetta flings herself gracefully to the floor.
During the second and third acts particularly, but in fairness all the way through, Anna Netrebko brought to the stage a sense that this opera is a forebear of the verismo movement in a way that is otherwise largely lacking from the production. Frankly, I think she deserved the standing ovation for her coughing alone, which was by far the most convincing I have ever seen in a performance of this opera. Indeed, the singer's realistic portrayal of Violetta's consumption from the first act to the last is surely unrivalled amongst the divas of recent years.
In Act I, I had some reservations about Netrebko's voice, which sounds unmistakably Russian and is not ideally suited to the cantilena of the love duet and aria. But it does increase the impression of pathos; and the fearlessness of the delivery was often gripping, a brilliant vocal illustration of the image presented in the cabaletta 'Sempre libera' of 'plunging into the vortex of pleasure and drowning there'. As if responding to this line in a larger context, her performance in the remaining acts was an almost unmitigated pleasure, with the exception of occasional ill-tuned notes (usually the result of pushing the voice for thrilling dramatic effect). The rehearsal period cannot have been long but Netrebko's was a rigorously thought out and executed interpretation which manipulated the audience in the best sense. She was equally capable of soft understatement as she was of bursting her voice into the rafters, and both the 'Addio del passato' and 'Parigi, o cara' were arrestingly sung.
However, for me that's where the good news stops. As a huge fan of Jonas Kaufmann after his excellent performances of La rondine and particularly Carmen at Covent Garden, I was looking forward to hearing his Alfredo immensely, but this clearly wasn't his night. In the first two acts there was rarely sufficient power to his voice to ride the orchestra; nor was his lyric ability as apparent as on previous occasions. The third act was a different story, and his performance almost equalled Netrebko's in intensity. There were also moments in the first scene of Act II when he brought unusual nuance to some of Alfredo's dialogue with his father, but there wasn't enough evenness of line in the aria and he looked physically tense when preparing to sing the unnecessarily interpolated high C.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave a solid performance as Giorgio Germont and grew in stature as his main scene progressed. The tessitura of the part lies very well for his distinctive baritone and I noticed in particular the care he took over the rests in the fragmented line of 'Un di, quando le veneri' (when he reminds Violetta that her looks will fade one day). This wasn't the most exciting performance I've seen from him, but Hvorostovsky was as reliable as ever.
For me, the smaller roles were not as strongly taken as on previous occasions: Mark Beesley went slightly out of tune as Doctor Grenvil, Sarah Pring was not a sufficiently complex Annina, Eddie Wade a rather inelegant and bland Douphol.
Although I've heard him conduct some good performances in the past (the first revival of David McVicar's Faust production, for instance), I don't think that Maurizio Benini quite had the stature to cope with this cast on what must have been little rehearsal for such a revival. Even from the back of the stalls I could hear him singing and see him gesturing desperately to try to engage the orchestra, which was often far too loud. Tempi were slow and had a tendency to slow down further during the course of a number; there wasn't the lightness of texture suggested by the chamber-like scoring of key passages, nor was the phrasing as delicate or as finely graded as the music needs. This was a violin-heavy Traviata, as well as a reading that made the score seem conventional and even dull as a consequence of excessive accents on downbeats (for instance in the gypsy music leading into the second scene of Act II, here given a vulgar rendition). Benini worked hard to keep the performance together and was clearly sympathetic to the singers, but at times I felt the latter had to mould their performances to Benini's tempi rather than the other way round. In all, I couldn't help but look back wistfully on Verdi performances given by Solti and Edward Downes in this theatre in the recent past and wish that this one had been of the same quality. As an aside, it's a shame to note that many of the corrections to the text made by Solti when the production was new have been allowed to slip (we don't even get the second verse of Violetta's 'Ah, fors'è lui', for instance), so this is no longer a 'complete' Traviata in that sense. Why the change?
Yet despite these faults, this was still a memorable revival, thanks to Netrebko's unmissable and stunning Violetta, for which I would happily queue up for a day seat to re-experience.
By Dominic McHugh
Photos: Catherine Ashmore