Sunday, October 29, 2006

ENO's La Traviata - exceeds expectations (REVIEW)


Friday night I went to the Coliseum in London to watch the ENO's new production of Verdi's La Traviata. This timeless tale is one of my favourite operas and I have viewed numerous versions over the years. The pinnacle of all my La Traviata experiences, so far, has been an amazing, deeply moving and strongly sung performance from the Royal Opera House, whilst in exile from Covent Garden during refurbishment, at London's Albert Hall. It was a sparsely furnished production with Elena Kelessidi, mesmerising as Violetta, and Marcelo Alvaros, the famous Argentine tenor, as a buoyant Alfredo.

Friday's outing of La Traviata was a far less scintillating experience, in all departments, but having said that, this production, which was absolutely savaged by London's critics, proved to be enjoyable and competent. Musically there was much to recommend it: Emma Bell's Violetta was confident, expressive and fluent; Dwayne Jones (Alfredo) had a pleasant lyric tenor voice and James Westman as Alfredo's father Germont, was pleasing enough, although perhaps his voice was a little young for the role, while James Darlington conducted the ENO orchestra with bold flair - although, very occasionally the orchestra overwhelmed the singers on stage - notably the close of Act II.

Bell's Violetta was an undeniably strong-willed woman - perhaps even a little too robust for the role - but I enjoyed her brimming self-confidence and felt it all the more powerfully, as a result, when she was reduced to such weakness and lethargy by her illness. Jones's Alfredo, in contrast, was a pudgy dweeb, for whom Violetta clearly felt no attraction in Act I, even while admiring his consistent ardency. However, by Act II, it is clear that his earnest, artless love wins Violetta's heart and in this sense, the production, rather strangely, worked. It was an interesting reading of Verdi's great work, and in fact a more realistic take too, as all too often we have tubby tenors straining and failing to be glamorous, romantic heroes. Jones's Alfredo was therefore almost comically peevish when Violetta leaves him (urged by his father) and he turns up at a party where Violetta is in attendance with her new client/lover The Baron. But again, this somehow worked, as the pent-up nerdy Alfredo seemed even more endangered, more vulnerable, in his innocent rage. The final scene, set in a dilapidated tenement, starkly showed how far Violetta had fallen in fortune, as well as health.

Set design was good, even elegant, and direction, by first-timer Conan Morrison, was competent, if uninspired. However, the foremost factor underpinning this new production, which drew stern criticism, was the moving of La Traviata from nineteenth century Paris to same-era Dublin, during the Irish Famine. Reviewers were at a loss as to why this had been effected - and they have a fair point. Aside from party revellers necking Guinness straight from the bottle, and a backdrop in Act I of St Patrick's cathedral, there was little sign that this was set in Dublin at all. Still, this move did not deserve the outpouring of vitriole reviewers targeted this production with. Indeed, the interval 'buzz' focused largely on how the critics had panned this production out of spite more than reason.

Overall, this was a tale well-told, well-sung and received with affection by an audience who had clearly warmed to this troupe of ENO performers, who sang their hearts out, in defiance of the production's undeserved critical slating.

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