We were promised surprises in Peter Konwitschny’s ‘La Traviata’, and the first comes at the start.
For here Alfredo (Ben Johnson) is a timorous nerd, constantly hiding his face in the curtains which are virtually the only props in this old-fashioned Expressionist production; typing him as a bookworm, Konwitschny has him desperately clutching a book to his breast like a security blanket. Everyone on stage treats him with condescending pity, yet Corinne Winters’s Violetta falls head over heels in love. Terrified bemusement is his response as he scampers into the stalls and scrambles over the legs of Row A, rendering the first love-duet tricky across the footlights. She mystifyingly becomes absorbed in his book, and shows her contempt for her gallivanting friends by briefly mooning at them; unfazed by this casual immodesty, Alfredo too falls deeply in love.
Suspension of disbelief is no easier in the second act, where Konwitschny introduces a disruptive new character in the form of Alfredo’s sister, who (incredibly) is brought along by her father. Verdi’s libretto simply alludes to this woman, who thus functions in our minds as a pure counter-image to Violetta, and whose plight induces Violetta’s self-sacrifice. Regarding the libretto as implausible – social history is clearly not his strong point - Konwitschny decides Violetta needs a better motive, so Germont pere (Anthony Michaels-Moore) becomes an abusive father against whom she defends the girl in sisterly solidarity. And the girl herself is grotesquely misconceived: is this little school-kid in plaits really about to be deprived of happiness with her adult betrothed? What planet are we on?
That this act’s great emotional duel is not totally destroyed is thanks entirely to Winters’s pure-toned Violetta, whose every phrase is exquisitely shaped; this in itself compels a modicum of belief, as does Michaels-Moore’s resonant Germont. Ben Johnson’s performance as Alfredo is heroic, transcending his impossible character and delivering his arias with heart-rending plangency. Michael Hofstetter’s tempi are sometimes slow, but he coaxes lovely string sounds from the pit. The chorus scenes are vigorously choreographed, and the conclusion does represent an interesting directorial idea.
At two hours separated by an interval, Verdi found the perfect shape for his opera. Konwitschny’s unhelpfully abbreviated version runs without a break: another reason for first-timers to give it a miss, and wait for the revival of Richard Eyre’s definitive take at Covent Garden.