La Rraviata, National Indoor Arena, Birmingham

A Violetta with a voice to die for
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The Independent Culture

The Birmingham Opera Company's bizarrely refreshing La Traviata is yet another fine example of the work of Graham Vick, former artistic boss at Glyndebourne and daringly maverick director, who has been hooking audiences over two decades. He has deployed his vast yet wieldy Birmingham ensemble in Wozzeck, Don Giovanni, Stephen Oliver's Beauty and the Beast, and much more besides, in between gigs at the Met and the Mariinsky.

Vick should try this kind of demotic show in what was once Marxist Leningrad. Even when one gulped (or glowered) at its audacity, this was a stupendous Traviata, swathed in naff lime-greens, loud pinks and glimmering silver, which probed no deeper but somehow skirted the clichéd drudgery of several honoured recent Traviatas of the Zeffirelli/Peter Hall school.

The designer Paul Brown's opening vista was of a vast Princess Diana-scale array of bouquets, plus a black catafalque at the top. Death reigned. It suited the sombre, hymn-like strings. (We were treated to the entire CBSO, and their playing was, as ever, superlative: Catriona MacKinnon's solo oboe, Alwyn Green's bracing third trombone, and leader Laurence Jackson in the heart-wrenching, nostalgic solos. The conductor Massimiliano Stefanelli is a real find.)

Over this florid set, borrowed from his Verona staging (hence the vastness) and rearranged as flowerbeds for Act II's rural "idyll" – wrecked when Germont senior (Mark Holland) arrives to rant – Vick unveils his main cast and extras. He could deploy his multi-background Birmingham forces (300 of them, all promising) more imaginatively, as he did in Ulysses or Candide. Many, in top hats and tails, deserved more action in Act II than wanly donning masks. A tractor or two, perhaps.

But where Vick invariably triumphs, where even the CBSO's efforts lag (despite its marvellous contrabassoonist, Margaret Cookhorn), is in making his personnel black and white. His Florestan and Pizzarro (Fidelio) were both outstanding black performers (the stalwart Keel Watson might have supplied an equally awesome Germont as Holland's). If only Verdi had given us more of the Marquis and Gaston: Rodney Clarke (last seen as Husky Miller in Jude Kelly's Carmen Jones, and as a fabulous Ferryman in Curlew River) and his brother Andrew Clarke (Joe in Carmen Jones, and divinely shimmering in Ulysses).

Vick's Doctor (the Latvian Pauls Putnins) had a fantastic bedside manner. Wendy Dawn Thompson glittered as a multicoloured Flora; Alison Crookendale made a tender maid. Mark Wilde, a sensational tenor, seems en route to a superlative Alfredo, although visually he shambled through Act I (though Violetta's bed brought him alive).

Ron Howell might work wonders on Wilde's movements, for Howell's split-second card-game scene choreography was arguably the evening's best thing. The other was the Manhattan-trained Talise Trevigne. Mislaid in a confusing first scene, this Violetta was young, optimistic, wise, tired, and, in the last act, as dead as a mummy. Her death, sloughing off life and exiting like a soul, was like some Inuit transfiguration. The voice is to die for.

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