Opera review: La Traviata, King's Head Theatre, London


Since carrying off an Olivier for their pocket Boheme, OperaUpClose have certainly fulfilled their initial promise. Their setting of Verdi's A Masked Ball in an IKEA store worked surprisingly well, as did their relocation of Tosca to Communist East Germany. After such exploits, shoe-horning a Twenties Traviata into the King's Head looked like a doddle. Director Robin Norton-Hale had placed the action in something resembling a railway carriage in Tsarist-Russia, but the costumes announced the flapper period loud and clear; the adaptation and translation was her own. 

The first hurdle – operating without a full orchestra - was successfully surmounted as Verdi's ravishing string textures at the start of the overture were rendered by Elspeth Wilkes on the piano; with Sarah Douglas on clarinet and Alison Holford outstanding on cello, this miniaturised arrangement worked so well that one was scarcely aware of the missing forces.

The opening scene jarred, however, and not because Verdi’s glittering throng had been reduced to a crowd of five. What was Alfredo's father Germont doing there? The point of the story is that he does not belong to the demi-monde, and his words didn’t sound natural: "I need one more bourbon and a kiss will put fuel in the tank." Indeed, none of the words sounded natural, because this libretto wasn't suited to being sung.

Meanwhile the singing itself was awkward, with everything delivered fortissimo and the little auditorium swamped with vibrato. Elinor Jane Moran's Violetta had a nice open tone, but she didn't let up on volume for the whole of the first act, while Philip Lee's Alfredo – played as a tight-lipped upper-class Englishman, rather than the requisite Latin charmer –shook visibly with the force of his own sound. Moreover, Norton-Hale’s rendering of the "misterioso" duet – "You understand me, something has passed between us" – didn't leave much space for love to blossom. Francis Church's Germont had a pleasing voice, but in the great duet between Violetta and Germont he and Moran simply bellowed at each other, sending pathos out of the window. If you tackle a great work without great voices, you have to offer something else, and this amdram show perversely threw away its trump card – intimacy. 

Finally things did look up, thanks to two other singers (Dario Dugandzic and Rosie Middleton) who didn't bellow, and to the fact that, for her final scene, Moran began to act with her voice, and consequently achieved beauty.