Now creeping towards its twentieth birthday, Richard Eyre's 1994 production of La Traviata has been a reliable fixture of recent seasons, playing host to some stellar performances. This season, the stars are fairly evenly distributed between two casts: the first builds up from Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Germont; the second, taking over in June, down from Angela Gheorghiu's famous assumption of the title role. Joining Hvorostovsky here were two young Albanians, Ermonela Jaho as Violetta and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo.
With Hvorostovsky, they make a handsome set of principals. Jaho, who made her Royal Opera debut in 2008 taking over from an ailing Anna Netrebko, shares with the Russian a dark, seductive timbre and glamorous good looks, while Pirgu—just 28 years old—possesses an easy, appealing tenor voice and makes a convincing stage partner for her. Hvorostovsky's Germont, however, outclassed them both in the technical security and Italianate grace of his singing, and it was a pleasure to hear, upon his entrance in Act Two, the first smoothly produced legato line of the evening.
By contrast, Jaho's first appearance in Act One showed up a middle range that sounded congested, with variable intonation. She struggled to invest the top of her voice with much power, invariably drifting sharp, and such later outbursts as her act-two 'Amami, Alfredo' sounded anticlimactic. She struggled in her act-one aria but improved greatly to turn in a moving final scene, replete with flouncy lap of honour.
Pirgu's clean timbre was less problematic, but for all the genuine appeal of his voice, his line could be lumpy and phrases snatched; his interjections during 'Sempre libera', for example, were delivered with minimal grace. The chemistry with Jaho, however, became more palpable as the evening progressed, and, despite a similar tendency to drift slightly above the note, he made a fine contribution to an effecting Act Three. Neither singer really provided anything that would be described as world-class, however. That was left to Hvorostovsky, now something of a veteran in the role of Germont. The fatherly hauteur he brings to the character often risks spilling over into indifference or even routine, but the quality of his singing is never in doubt, and he negotiated 'Di provenza il mar' with burnished tone and characteristic easy legato.
Making his Royal Opera debut in the pit, Yves Abel provided a straightforward account of the score, often tending towards swifter tempos—such as in Act Two's gambling scene—but giving his singers flexibility and maintaining dramatic momentum. He seemed happy to let Verdi's masterly score speak for itself without seeking anything revelatory, an admirable approach in itself, if not an especially exciting one. Smaller roles in the cast were well taken with Robert Lloyd a humane and dignified Doctor Grenvil and Changhan Lim a garrulous Marquis D'Obigny. The Royal Opera Chorus showed once more how much they enjoy a party, singing their scenes with gusto.
Eyre himself had returned to direct Renée Fleming in last season's revival, but left duties on this occasion to Paul Higgins. He did his best within the constrained space of the set for Act One, where there's no way round the feeling that the crowds are being marshalled artificially between the two staircases that feature either side of the central space. It makes some sense, though, to make a feature of their jostling to be seen. This included jolly waving from the back as various couples left, a detail I'd not noticed on previous outings of the production. Bob Crowley's designs for the second and third acts still look smart and modern, helped by a far more efficient use of the space available than in Act One. Violetta's over-sized room in Act Three remains a powerful, if obvious, representation of her abandonment, while the half packed-up set for the country house and the skewed angles of the party scene in Act Two are as easy on the eye as ever.
It is often the case with Traviata that whatever happens in the first two acts, Act Three casts its spell regardless, removing any doubts regarding the performance of what has gone before. And that was what happened once more here, as Jaho's considerable skills as an actress kicked in—remarkably, it was as Violetta that she made her professional debut aged just 17. There had, however, been much to enjoy earlier in the evening, but this is a solid revival, rather than an inspired one.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credit: Johan Persson