Interviewed in the programme notes for Verdi’s La Traviata at ENO, director Peter Konwitschny explains that the subject matter of the plot remains daring and “socially explosive”, even in our more permissive times. For at the heart of Verdi’s narrative is Violetta, a tart, a prostitute, a whore (earlier productions from another time refer to her more delicately as “a courtesan”). It was Verdi’s apparent sympathy for this character which shocked his audiences. Violetta may not shock us now, coming at the opera with our 21st-century sensibilities, but the manner in which she is viewed and treated by those around her as the narrative unfolds still has the power to make us uneasy. Like Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, Violetta is the “tart with a heart” and the only true human being in the piece.
ENO’s La Traviata was first seen in this production in 2013 and many of the original cast remain, including tenor Ben Johnson, who plays Alfredo as a naive bookworm, complete with duffle coat and specs, suffering the teasing of the boozy chorus in the first scene as he proposes a toast to Violetta. His warmth and passion is convincing throughout the drama, and particularly poignant when he calls out to Violetta from the stalls (disturbing the front row to emphasise his desperation). Elizabeth Zharoff makes her debut in the role of Violetta, playing her a fiesty yet vulnerable mannequin in the opening scene, before she exchanges her stiff crimson party frock for comfy country clothes (a lumberjack shirt and Timberland boots) in Scene 2. Her coloratura singing at the end of Scene 1 is exquisitely precise, freighted with anguish. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who makes his appearance as Alfredo’s father in Scene 2, is a powerful presence, and like the other leading roles, that power is tinged with sensitivity.
Alongside these fine singers, the setting was, for me, crucial to the success of the production. The last time I saw La Traviata was in a film version, all crinolines, ringlets, chandeliers and breathless over-acting which disguised the true nature of the narrative. Here, the simple setting – bordello-red curtains cleverly painted with trompe l’oeil pleats and used to sensual and dramatic effect as the drama plays out (they are torn down in the final scene), and as single chair – allow us to focus on the psychology and raw emotion of La Traviata. And with few visual distractions, one can also appreciate Verdi’s music: the chilly opening bars are played as if heard in the next room, a musical signpost to what happens later, and there is also some wonderfully pared down playing by the wind section in particular, under the direction of Roland Böer. This production has lost all the ballet music too and some aria repeats, and there is no interval, reducing the running time to a spare 110 minutes. The chorus are sloshed, voyeuristic party-goers, in DJ’s and LBD’s, revelling in schadenfreude at Violetta’s situation and Alfredo’s innocence. In the final scene, when the doctor is summoned to Violetta, he appears in his party hat, cocked at a drunken angle, with streamers instead of stethoscope. This is a production which really gets to the heart of what this opera is about: passionate love, premature death and the fundamental humanity of its tragic heroine.
My husband accompanied me, my regular opera companion being unwell, and I was pleased that he, who is, by his own confession, “opera allergic” (after I forced him to endure Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ at Glyndebourne some 26 years ago) enjoyed the production and was able to appreciate both the spectacle and emotional impact.
La Traviata continues in repertory at ENO at London’s Coliseum