Whether it's an audience survey of the best-loved operas or a statistical survey of the most-performed, over the years Verdi's La Traviata has proved a permanent fixture in the top ten – often even the top three. With ubiquity like this comes an additional pressure in production, particularly where ‘authentic' interpretations are concerned. Stripped of the distraction of an updated or wildly transposed setting, audience focus is returned to the core of the work: the quality of the music-making, and its dramatic conviction.
Directed by David McVicar and with the excellent Andrea Licata in the pit, on paper WNO's Traviata has everything going for it. Sadly however, somewhere between the clinking of champagne glasses, the swishing of can-can girls' petticoats and the coughing of our consumptive heroine, something is lost. Traditional it may be, but true authenticity doesn't just mean getting all the period details right; it's about capturing the emotional and dramatic spirit of the work, by whatever means possible.
Shifting Verdi's setting just a few telling decades forward, McVicar's Traviata finds Paris in a fin de siecle frenzy of bustles and bare shoulders. As the curtain rises on Act I it's as if we have stepped into a John Singer Sargent painting, complete with our heroine in a black velvet evening dress – a nod towards the painter's famous Madame X. While Verdi's Paris of the 1850's still retained something of an innocence about its pleasures, this later setting presents a darker and altogether more degenerate scene of a society that knows its days are numbered. This sense of foreboding, of the end of an era, is heightened by the stage set itself. Writing scrawled across the width of the floor proclaims it to be the grave of Violetta Valery. The black curtains draped and swathed all around the stage are revealed as the shrouds of a mausoleum – a grim monument not only to a dying girl, but to the age that created and ultimately destroyed her.
Originally created for Scottish Opera and now reworked for WNO, this production has had plenty of time to settle into itself. Polished in all its physical trappings, with Tanya McCallin's elegantly monochrome colour palate punctuated only occasionally by flashes of colour, its naturalistic setting nevertheless feels more than a little rigid and stagy on occasion. A very static chorus does nothing to improve matters, and while the difficulty of manoeuvring so large a body of people in so small a space is acknowledged, the effect was of a series of tableaux rather than a fluid and naturalistic flow of action.
Sadly this same artificiality was shared by much of the cast's acting – the flaw which, for me, really killed what might otherwise have been an intelligent delight of a production. While technically sound enough, Katia Pellegrino's Violetta lacked any of the physical or emotional vulnerability required to make this seasoned courtesan convincing in her sudden descent into love. With movements lacking any grace she stomped about the stage more like a twenty-first century linebacker than a nineteenth century consumptive, and what emotions she did attempt were straight from historical romance 101; smashing champagne glasses and scattering red roses across the floor does not necessarily a passionate scene make. Vocally, while a few cracks did appear in her lower register and her top E-flat in ‘Sempre Libera' was aggressively effortful, Pellegrino did make a good job of a difficult role. Heavier than I would have liked in tone, her voice nevertheless made light of the denser passages of coloratura and achieved some truly focused beauty in the gentler scenes of Acts II and III.
ClassicFM's golden boy Alfie Boe was a pleasant surprise as Alfredo. His is a tenor of the typically English tradition – smoothly produced and warmly toned, but lacking the raw power and bright edginess of an Italian voice. While occasionally overpowered by the orchestral forces, he delivered a very competent, and occasionally rather moving vocal performance, taking some real risks in the drunken card-game of Act II, which more than paid off in dramatic terms. Sadly any chemistry with Pellegrino was entirely lacking, rendering a semi-naked bedroom scene awkward rather than romantic.
Among the supporting cast, Dario Solari's Germont was solid and understated. Despite some slightly odd vocal mannerisms his performance was enjoyable, and the confrontation between Solari and Boe was a real dramatic highlight. Both Louise Poole as the flirtatious Flora and Joanne Thomas as Annina were competent, but it was David Soar's tiny cameo as Doctor Grenvil that really upped the vocal stakes.
The real musical delights of the evening however were the orchestra and chorus. Responding to Licata's impassioned conducting, they delivered a performance both precise and passionate, straddling that hardest of lines between Romantic and over-the-top, and producing a genuinely blended sounds in Oxford New Theatre – never the easiest of performance spaces.
This is a competent production that could so easily have been a classic – proof (if proof were needed) that an intelligent concept and beautiful design are just not enough to produce a good opera. Particularly in the smaller spaces of regional theatres dramatic conviction is everything; if we do not believe the romance at the heart of Verdi's tale, then all the silks and satins and flowing negligees in the world are never going to redeem it.
Photo Credits: Bill Cooper
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