The first criticism I heard of English National Opera’s La Traviata was voiced about a fortnight before it opened. ‘They must be off their heads,’ said a music biz know-all. ‘They’re £2.5 million in the red and they’re giving up all the bar takings on the most popular opera in the rep.’
What my mate meant was that Peter Konwitschny’s production – the UK debut by this esteemed German director – condensed the opera into a single act, lasting just under two hours. That meant losing about a third of the music, much of it da capo, and retelling the story as a drama in four crisp, bare-staged scenes. Using nothing but red curtains and a single chair must have made up for loss of bar takings, I guess.
As story-telling, it worked better than many a long evening in a velvet-seated opera house. Violetta was a tart with a golden heart, Alfredo a young geek and his father a pontificating hypocrite of the most monstrous sort. The singing was two full leagues above the modest seat prices.
Corinne Winters, who learned the role just recently in Hong Kong, matched serenity and physical beauty with an effortless top and a spinal tap into our darkest feelings. Ben Johnson was a tad young and slight as Alfredo, but Anthony Michaels-Moore sang the role of his life as the egotistical father, brutal and overpowering and yet still appealing to an empathetic node in audience hearts and minds. Michael Hofstetter conducted, another excellent debut.
The masterstroke of Konwitschny’s production was to have Violetta, on stage, die alone – as we all must – while the other principals sang from an aisle in the middle of the audience. This was an opera of us and them, the majority and the few, the house and the outcasts. It was as claustrophobic as Britten’s Peter Grimes and every bit as guarded and ambiguous in its judgement of character.
This was not so much an update of Traviata as a search for Brechtian motives. It unearthed quite a few. The house was packed to the rafters. The bars stayed empty.