La Traviata, Royal Opera House, London
LSO/Gergiev, Barbican Hall, London

Overstuffed sets and buttressed costumes do their best to squeeze the life out of Verdi's doomed heroine, but it's worth fighting for a ticket for this Covent Garden revival just to see Anna Netrebko

A few years ago in Leeds, something very surprising happened to me. After a lifetime of rolling my eyes through the last act of La Traviata, tutting at its cruelty and mawkishness, I was shaken by Violetta Valéry's death for the first time. There wasn't much to see on stage – an age-spotted mirror, a dusty chaise-longue, a half-seen ghost of the heroine's hedonistic past – and the singer was not a celebrated diva with a contract to promote expensive timepieces. But where other directors had framed the death of poor, beautiful, consumptive Violetta in yet more beauty, making it limpid, exquisite, unreal, Annabel Arden's stripped-back production for Opera North showed a woman made ugly by illness and loneliness and poverty and fear. All of which is there in the music.

Ever since the lights went down on Arden's production, I've been a sucker for this opera, sniffing into my hanky from the first death-bed chords of the overture. Even bad productions make me cry, and it's all because of that last act, and Janis Kelly's fierce, honest, text-led performance. I cried this Monday at Covent Garden too. Yet I left the star-studded revival of Richard Eyre's 1994 production feeling oddly dissatisfied: moved by Anna Netrebko's fearless reading of Violetta's last, desperate, candid confession, but scandalised that such an uninhibited and spontaneous actress should be shoe-horned into this frigid, fusty show.

Its 10th revival of La Traviata sums up all that is best and worst about the Royal Opera House. Only a handful of companies could afford to field Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Dimitri Hvorostovsky in one cast, and, of those that can, only this house has a chorus of sufficient dynamism to match them and a young artists programme with talents as stage-ripe as Monika-Evelin Liiv (Flora) and Kostas Smoriginas (Marquis). Conductor Maurizio Benini, if over-indulgent of his singers' whims, is a supreme stylist, and the orchestral performance, though slow to warm up, was strong. Musically, all is well. But Eyre's production is a faded relic of the pre-Pappano era, and only Hvorostovsky (Germont) – a marvellous voice in a mannequin's body – adheres to the pre-Pappano protocol of stand-and-deliver singing.

Regrettable as it is that Hvorostovsky has eyes only for Benini, a stiff Germont is not the end of the world. But Bob Crowley's over-stuffed sets and fussy costumes allow for little fluency of movement from anyone. Conceived as a showcase for Angela Gheorghiu, the production calls for poignancy and passivity: a creamy voice in a pretty face. Netrebko, though pretty, is a different animal. Her dark, giddy, uneven voice has less polish than Gheorghiu's, more sprezzatura, more appetite. And if the touchstone of this production is death, Netrebko's – and Verdi's, for that matter – is the process of dying. Revival director Patrick Young has assisted Netrebko to some degree by replacing the overture's memorial portrait with images that suggest Violetta's progress from little matchgirl to pubescent plaything, and has attempted to illustrate a powerful sexual attraction between her and Alfredo, though the chemistry is weak.

Kaufmann's singing is beautiful but unidiomatic, his characterisation diffident, as though he is ashamed of Alfredo for loving Violetta too little, too late, and would prefer to be acting in a production that critiques the opera. But this is Netrebko's moment, and though her bronchitic bark, flushed cheeks, urgent physicality and desperate eyes are undermined by the buttressed costumes she is made to wear in Acts I and II, and her restless spinning suggests she is still in thrall to Willy Decker's modern-dress Salzburg Festival production, she stamps her vitality on the role: underscoring each repeat of "follia" (madness), grasping with both hands her only chance of love, resisting the death she knows to be inevitable. Liberated by the relatively empty set and simple nightdress of Act III, she tears into each nuance of Violetta's music and words, the rough cry of "E tardi", the misery of "Addio passato", the hopeless fantasy of "Parigi, o cara". For her in-the-now performance alone, it is worth fighting for a ticket for this in-the-then show. If Netrebko isn't big enough to merit a new production of La Traviata, it looks as if we're going to be stuck with this one for a few years more.

Valery Gergiev's Mahlerian rollercoaster ride with the London Symphony Orchestra looped back to the beginning last weekend in a riveting performance of the composer's Symphony No 1 and an unriveting performance of Schoenberg's constipated Pelleas und Melisande. Like Netrebko's Violetta, Gergiev's Mahler was lived rather than rehearsed: vital, reckless, thrilling. In the first movement, the faint skein of vibrato-free violins seemed not so much to have started as to have been there all along, unheard, part of a sublime landscape in which Gergiev acted as cinematographer, zooming in to the dense forest of clarinets, then swooping down to a meadow of silken cellos. The stamping, heel-of-the-bow Ländler gave way to a teasingly slow Trio, while the queasy funeral march, Mahler's most overtly Jewish music, encapsulated everything from the casual prejudice of a Viennese sophisticate to the violence of the pogroms. Yes, the accelerandi were insanely fast. But the sinus-clearing shriek of the last movement was one of the most exciting things I've heard from the LSO. For those who missed it, and Symphonies 3, 4, and 6, Radio 3 broadcasts the concerts from 28 January.

Royal Opera House (020- 7304 4000), to 29 January

Need to know

Adapted from Alexandre Dumas' play 'La Dame aux Camélias', Verdi's 'La Traviata' premiered in Venice in 1853 under the straight-talking title 'Amore e Morte'. The first soprano to sing the role of Violetta Valéry was Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, whose weight of "precisely 130 kilograms" made her an unconvincing consumptive, and the premiere was not a success. More slender Violettas have included Maria Callas, pictured below, Teresa Stratas and Angela Gheorghiu, for whom the current Covent Garden production was created. Anna Netrebko's Salzburg Festival performance can be seen on DVD (Deutsche Grammophon), with Rolando Villazon as Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as Germont.

Further reading Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors" (Penguin Modern Classics)

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss