Sixteen years after her triumphant appearance as Violetta in the original showing of Sir Richard Eyre's production of Verdi's La traviata, and fourteen years after her last Covent Garden appearance in the opera, Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu returned to the Royal Opera for her third appearance in this staging.
Sadly, what ought to have been a great occasion was marred by a rudimentary approach to the direction, some sloppy conducting, and inferior casting around Gheorghiu.
Eyre's production has always had its problematic elements. For one thing, the staging is visually odd in Bob Crowley's designs. Violetta's salon in the first act is ostentatiously three-dimensional but is difficult to relate to a real building; then the country house in Act 2 is dreadfully flat and limiting. Meanwhile, it's curious that the scenes that are meant to be set in winter-time (Acts 1 and 3) show no signs of the temperature, particularly the final act (in which Violetta is unfeasibly dressed in very little, considering she's meant to be dying of consumption).
Whereas last year's revival was absolutely riveting from the direction point of view, overcoming the physical production by drawing superlative acting performances from Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson, this time there's very little chemistry between the singers and most of the interesting additions from last time have been removed. The lack of tension between Gheorghiu and James Valenti, her new Alfredo, fatally undermines the motivation of the whole story; they don't even suit each other physically. The chorus's participation is so bland and broad that there's no sense of their relevance to the story, and the more eccentric elements of the production – such as the Phantom of the Opera-like mirage of Alfredo in Violetta's mirror – seem more clunky than ever.
To be fair, Gheorghiu threw herself wholeheartedly into the piece, and the audience raved at the end. For me, she could have portrayed Violetta's illness far more vividly, rather than appearing to have endless energy for most of the evening, and she did not connect particularly well with Valenti, but in her solos there were still glimpses of her great early appearances. What was more surprising was the musical performance: although she can still produce some glamorous sounds and get through all the notes, some passages were physically effortful. Only one verse of both her arias was sung, unlike in the original viewing of the production where Solti opened up the cuts, and it was extremely noticeable in places that she was pulling the time around to an incredible extent, leaving the orchestra to catch up. At her best, such as at Violetta's reaction to Germont's request to leave Alfredo, Gheorghiu was as affecting as ever, but at other times she fell short of the mark.
The biggest disappointment for me was the performance of Valenti, who has a pleasant lyric sound in the middle range but was strained at the top. 'O mio rimorso' (also done with just one verse) was a struggle and the high C at the end did not have the requisite impact. Nor did his rather blank acting suggest the passion that is meant to drive Violetta to distraction.
Perhaps the most traditionally Verdian performance, vocally-speaking, came from Zeljko Lucic, who was secure in the part of Germont. But again, there was little personality here, and his intonation, which is normally secure, occasionally went astray. The Germont-Violetta duet was one of the evening's musical highlights, but the psychological interplay was much weaker than in the last revival, or even the one before (with Netrebko). There were some fine performances in the smaller roles, especially Sarah Pring's deeply-felt Annina and Ji-Min Park's lively Gastone, but the truth is that this Traviata never really came alive.
Yves Abel's tempi appeared to be seriously at variance with Gheorghiu's on several occasions, including both arias and her major solo at the end of the second act, and there were some tuning problems in the string playing. The chorus, too, seemed to be a different set of people compared to the recent Boccanegra, and was rather underpowered.
In short, the sense that this story might actually matter, or that the atmosphere is meant to be dramatic and poignant, was missing from this first-night performance. Perhaps it will pick up during the remaining three shows in this brief run, but at the moment it has the feeling of having been revived with too much speed and not enough detail or reflection.
Photo Credits: Catherine Ashmore