Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Violetta Valéry – Angela Gheorghiu
Alfredo Germont – James Valenti
Giorgio Germont – Željko Lučič
Baron Douphol – Eddie Wade
Doctor Grenvil – Richard Wiegold
Flora Bervoix – Kai Rüütel
Marquis d’Obigny – Changhan Lim
Gastone de Letorières – Ji-Min Park
Annina – Sarah Pring
Giuseppe – Neil Gillespie
Messenger – Charbel Mattar
Servant – Jonathan Coad
Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends of Violetta and Flora, Guests, Servants
Sir Richard Eyre (director)
Bob Crowley (designs)
Jane Gibson (movement)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Yves Abel (conductor)
This was my first Verdi performance in the theatre for thirteen years or so: I must have been the least jaded of critics for the opening night of the revival of Sir Richard Eyre’s La Traviata. Benjamin Britten was said to listen to the music of Brahms once a year, to remind him why he loathed it. (Oddly, however, there is a recording of the op.52 Liebeslieder Waltzes from Aldeburgh.) In a similar spirit, although on a considerably broader timescale, I considered that it would do me no harm to put my prejudices or judgements to the test.
There would be many worse ways of doing so than seeing Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta. I had not actually heard her in the flesh before and was a little surprised as to how small her voice is. She made it work though, so that it could be heard perfectly well even when singing pianissimo. Her coloratura was, so far as I discerned, flawless, no mean feat. I recall watching this production on the television as a schoolboy, the first run under Solti which really made Gheorghiu’s name. She obviously does not look – or sound – so young now, but this remains still a fine vocal performance. In terms of playing herself on stage she is also clearly without peer; Angela Gheorghiu is a role one is tempted to think she was born to play. Certainly one had the impression, rightly or wrongly, that her movements, her expressions, pretty much everything she is doing – all these are very much her own thing.
Given the conservatism of Eyre’s production, and especially of Bob Crowley’s designs, that is not necessarily so bad thing. Zeffirelli with a slightly lower calorie count doubtless appeals to some even on this side of the Atlantic, but there is suspension of disbelief and then there is the size of Violetta’s bedroom in act three of this production. Otherwise, the costumes look beautiful and so forth, but it is really only the presence of the soprano that grants any sense of theatre at all: ironic, since that then reinforces the idea that opera should be about star singers and therefore about works like this, and a vicious, doubtless highly commercial circle ensues. I can only assume, moreover, that some deal had been struck with the Association of Consumptives, for the state of the audience made poor Violetta seem hale and healthy.
James Valenti looked good as Alfredo and sang ardently, but often wavered in intonation. There was strength in the singing of Željko Lučič as Germont père, though his stage presence was somewhat wooden (how much is the production at fault here?) and his style sounded just a touch incongruously Slavic. The choral singing was excellent, for which thanks must once again go to Renato Balsadonna and of course the Royal Opera Chorus itself. And the orchestra played beautifully, Yves Abel directing unobtrusively but not without character.
There remains the work itself. I tried, but the esteem in which it and Verdi’s œuvre in general are held continues to baffle me. Puccini can be mawkish, Rossini can be shallow, but there is a degree of craftsmanship to be heard and admired there. Verdi seems to combine the worst aspects of both, standing perhaps slightly above Donizetti, but that is all. The orchestration is often rudimentary – though, as I said, the orchestra made the most of what it had. Harmony is uninteresting and the accompaniments – the word for once is apt – are often so derisory. And then there is the ‘tart with a heart, transfigured’ tale: does it go beyond the level of a women’s magazine story? I fail to see how – and it now seems utterly dated, not least in its attitude towards gender. Just when one thinks there might be some psychological insight, the music of the pizza parlour returns. The ‘tunes’, memorable because one hears them so often, are rarely integrated into the musical texture, such as it is, let alone into the drama, such as it is. Given the lack of musical interest, surely a more adventurous production might alleviate the ennui. Regietheater seems a necessity here. Were this a neglected work, one could understand someone thinking it worth a try, but a staple of the repertoire? Some people might, for a variety of reasons, dislike Wagner; but being something other than Wagner is not in itself a guarantee of anything. As Pierre Boulez once put it, Verdi is ‘picture-postcard music’. He said that he would prefer to see a whole landscape; the same goes for me.