Classical review: La traviata - More a dying swan than a golden goose

ENO won’t be able to cash in on its new Verdi, which chooses polemic over pure passion

The tender halo of light that opens La traviata is chilled and stiffened in conductor Michael Hofstetter's reading of Verdi's opera for English National Opera. There is no bloom here, no consoling vibrato, just the coldness of a lonely death. The first bars of this score have always told the listener what to expect in Act III – not that anyone in 1853 (or since) would have been ignorant of a story based on the messy life and death of a pretty prostitute who inspired both the novel and play La dame aux camélias. At the opera's premiere, it was Verdi's sympathy for his subject ("a common whore") that shocked the audience. In Peter Konwitschny's production, it is the absolute absence of sentiment.

Warmly received on its opening night, Konwitschny's staging may not prove to be the super-revivable box-office boost that ENO badly needs. Stripped-back Traviatas are nothing new. Willy Decker did it in Salzburg, Jean-François Sivadier in Aix-en-Provence, Annabel Arden in Leeds. All Konwitschny has done is to take the process further: reducing the luxurious trappings of Violetta's credit-fuelled lifestyle to a series of thin curtains the colour of dried blood, a single chair (thrown about, as chairs in opera always are) a pile of books (thrown about, as books in opera always are), condensing the opera into 110 minutes, and removing the comfort of a love that, however insufficient, is at least sincere.

Rolando Villazon, Charles Castronovo and Tom Randle were allowed to love their Violettas, albeit too little and too late. Here, Ben Johnson's myopic, duffle-coated Alfredo is stranded in the aisle of the stalls – a spectator like his father (Anthony Michaels-Moore), Annina (Valerie Reid) and bleary Doctor Grenvil (Martin Lamb), still drunk from the previous night, his party hat at a jaunty angle, streamers in place of a stethoscope. Corinne Winters's tireless, flintily idiomatic Violetta walks into the void, herself at last.

Though compellingly sung by Winters and Johnson (both of whom manage to project Italianate bite and lyricism through the fusty Edwardian argot of Martin Fitzpatrick's English translation), Konwitschny's production is only partially successful in its provocations. If you have a soprano who can sing "Addio del passato" as well as Winters can, why deprive us of the second verse? The supporting roles and chorus are presented as gaudy grotesques, raising knife and fork as though to consume the consumptive Violetta, while Michaels-Moore's Germont is a hulking bully, brutally striking his bespectacled prepubescent daughter (Kezhe Julian Temir) in front of Violetta.

The decadence and greed of contemporary Paris and the implacability of bourgeois moral values undoubtedly inform the text and music of the opera. Konwitschny's emphasis on the crucial imbalance between Violetta's love for Alfredo and Alfredo's love for Violetta ("Amami, Alfredo, amami quant'io t'amo") is likewise true to the source. But what are we to make of the wigs? If Winters's real hair is only revealed in the last scene, her appearance in the country retreat is just another costume, another act. And what has happened to the illness? In a score unrivalled in its depiction of a specific disease, that disease has vanished. This, then, is a drama of isolation in which we, the audience, are complicit. Though infinitely sharper than the funereal pomp and libido-crushing crinolines of the Royal Opera House production, this is not a production of La traviata, it is a commentary on La traviata.

Kasper Holten has been a remarkable advocate for the Royal Opera in his 18 months as artistic director. New productions of new works are promised, building on the success of The Minotaur. Both London companies are keen to become a talking point, it seems, but whose talking point? The audience that wants castanets and donkeys with its Carmen, or the audience that thrills to the homoerotic dust-bowl of Calixto Bieito's Seville? In his first production at Covent Garden, Holten tries to address both tribes simultaneously with a traditionally costumed but haphazardly interventionist Eugene Onegin. In it, two middle-aged singers of extraordinary interpretive sophistication and vocal suavity are forced to compete for attention with their balletic body-doubles, a tree, a corpse, a wheatsheaf, an unidentified piece of agricultural machinery, and a video of scarlet beech trees that looks like a slide from a trichologist's microscope.

Delicately handled by conductor Robin Ticciati, the sepia beauty of Tchaikovsky's score fits easily into Holten's concept. Filtering Pushkin's story through the memories and regrets of the now mature Tatyana (Krassimira Stoyanova) and Onegin (Simon Keenlyside) is a touching idea, but the execution is muddled, with a shallow stage on which everyone in the final two scenes must take care to avoid tripping over Lensky's (Pavol Breslik) supine body. If I were Tatyana, I'd call housekeeping.

The singing is heroic, even sensational in the case of Breslik and Stoyanova, the stagecraft cramped. But who is going to intervene when the person responsible for intervening before weak productions hit the Covent Garden stage – Kasper Holten – is also the director of the show? You can't have a donkey and a dustbowl.

'La traviata' to 3 Mar (020-7845 9300); 'Eugene Onegin' to 20 Feb (020-7304 4000)

Next Week

Anna Picard sees Welsh National Opera embrace the brutal lyricism of Berg's Lulu

Critic's choice

On Friday, three major British opera productions launch on the same night. At the Grand Opera House, Belfast, Oliver Mears's staging of The Flying Dutchman opens with Bruno Caproni as the enigmatic Dutchman. Pia Furtado's production of Massenet's Werther opens at Glasgow's Theatre Royal, while Sarah Connolly sings the tragic title role of Charpentier's Medea in David McVicar's staging for ENO at the London Coliseum, with Christian Curnyn directing from the harpsichord.

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