Performance review from the 22nd of January 2020 at the Royal Opera House London
Run: 17th December 2019 - 23rd March 2020
Composer & Librettist: Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave
Director: Richard Eyre
Design: Bob Crowley
Lighting Design: Jean Kalman
Photo: Act I - from the Royal Opera House Website
Sitting in the appropriately named Verdi box of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on the evening of Wednesday the 22nd of January, a familiar shiver runs down the back of my spine as the stage lights go down and the audience goes quiet.
Written in 1853 by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Francesco Piave, the world’s most performed opera is entering its 25th anniversary at the ROH. La Traviata tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a Parisian courtesan whose famous character is based off of the non-fictitious life of Marie Duplessis, the star of Alexandre Dumas’ play ‘La Dame aux camélias’.
Violetta decides to abandon the Parisian metropolis, her luxuries and transgressions, and move to the countryside with her love Alfredo Germont. Together they live happily until Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont pays them a visit. He asks Violetta to do the inconceivable – to leave Alfredo because their unbefitting marriage risks the disgrace of his family. Violetta, convinced by Germont, writes a letter of goodbye to Alfredo. Alfredo is incensed and assumes that she must be having an affair with the Baron Douphol. Time passes and Violetta is now dying of consumption, when Alfredo comes to know the truth. He immediately rushes to ask for her forgiveness but, in accepting that her love is finally by her side, she dies.
The role of Violetta is a favourite for many star sopranos however, it is by no means an easy feat. Three different personas must be portrayed in both acting and vocal quality across the three acts; the challenge for each soprano who undertakes this marathon role is to make all three versions of Violetta convincing. With a powerful voice and enormous lungs, Azerbaijani soprano Dinara Alieva certainly achieved this. Brilliant control over the difficult high and low extremes of Verdi’s writing enabled her to show the sheer expanse of emotion that Violetta feels throughout the story. Meanwhile, her dusky lower range was allowed to flourish in her final dying hours of the last act. However, a slight lack of flexibility across the numerous higher runs meant that she struggled at times to reach the stratospheric moneymaking notes in some of Violetta’s most famous arias.
For me, it is the melodical lyricism that is so evident in the opening bars of the prelude that is the key to Verdi’s success then, and now. A monumental change for his era, Verdi utilized his music to transmit the changing emotions and deepest sentiments of his characters, rather than reflecting the atmosphere of the scenes, like so many composers before him. This constant emotional contradiction is salient to the inception of one of Verdi’s most eminent female roles.
The opening prelude is one of my favourite moments of the whole opera, as the moment before the conductor’s first baton movement holds the entire passion of the story in suspension. So naturally, the first thing I noticed was this performance’s unusual cloying and cloudy prelude that did little justice to Verdi’s restrained and graceful writing. The conductor, Daniel Oren, took it slightly too fast from the start, with not enough emotional gravitas given to the strings and their delicate countermelodies. This ultimately led to a distinct lack of the infamous weighty pauses that inject the first overpowering emotion. Act one felt oddly wayward from this point. Oren and the chorus had, at moments, quite different ideas about tempi in some of the Act one set pieces and things felt slightly out of kilter particularly towards the end of the ‘Brindisi’.
The opening of the opera is marked by one of Bob Crowley’s most exquisite belle époque set designs that featured throughout the performance. The grand golden salon plays host to the chorus in fabulous deep coloured ball gowns and dashing tuxedos. Perhaps most breath-taking is Violetta’s gown - a striking (almost ironically) angelic white against the darker hues of the other women’s dresses. Displayed at the V&A’s 2017-2018 ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ exhibition, the dress is synonymous with opera’s most famous ‘femme-fatale’ character.
Blushingly handsome (as my mother and I discovered!), Jonathon Tetelman entered as the bachelor Alfredo and displayed incredible control across all areas of his voice, but in particular in “Un di felice”, where he was able to pull right back to the edge of his voice on ‘misterioso’ to enhance his intoxicating confession of love to Violetta.
Photo: Act II scene 2 - from the Royal Opera House Website
In Act two the male characters are allowed to blossom, as Giorgio Germont makes his grand entrance into the countryside estate. Sparsely furnished with china blue walls, what the dining room is lacking in atmosphere is made up for in the ardent passion felt between each of the three characters. The fervour felt between Tetelman and Alieva in “Che fai? Nulla” is palpable and as Alieva clasps onto Tetelman, we witness the perpetual adoration that exists between the two characters. By the violin’s climactic chromatic rise to “amami Alfredo”, I was (as is usual with this opera) in floods of tears.
Unusually young for a ‘Germont’ (most famously played by Simon Keenlyside), Gabriele Viviani has a strong voice but slightly lacks the rich smoky undertones that come with age for Germont’s most famous basso notes. However, his acting made up for this and his rigid, reserved movements (possibly due to the 4 layers of costume he was wearing...) suggested the cold indifference synonymous with his feelings towards Violetta.
In Act two we are launched into another glamorous party scene as Violetta’s friend and confidante, Flora, is hosting a Spanish themed ball. Stylistically, Bob Crowley has chosen to emulate the historical 19th century orientalism heard in the music of “Noi siamo Zingarelle” with the men and women dressed superbly in Spanish tinged flamenco-esque costumes. Special mention must also go to Honghi Wu for her representation of Flora in the performance. A Jette Parker young artist at the start of her career with the ROH, she has a beautifully clear voice and looked completely at ease throughout her well-acted performance.
In an era of increasing realism in literature, La Traviata was the first opera to discuss the contemporary social problem of prostitution. It was also the first to raise a woman identifiable as a courtesan to the status of a tragic heroine against the overwhelming outcries for censorship. This was, even then, a great step towards emancipation of the female character in the world of opera. Today, in a world of increasing power of women’s rights, it serves to highlight the importance of strength of female character but equally the danger of judging a woman by her sexual history. As Tim Service so eloquently put in his 2015 article for The Guardian, “Violetta’s searing message of the fate of “fallen women” is one we still need to hear” – amidst a rocky start, this performance certainly still hammered the crucial message home.