MUSIC / Gold comes in small quantities: Robert Maycock on Music Theatre London's La Traviata at the Donmar

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The Independent Culture
For collectors of opera's many paradoxes, here is another: the smaller the stage, the less glamorous the voices, the more intense the encounter. The only catch is that the performances must convince you of their integrity at close range. Or so it seemed when this veteran of many Traviatas went to Music Theatre London and experienced the work as though for the first time. The animal pull of love against family, the cruelty of deception, the tragedy of finding your dream too late: there it all was, raw and unmediated, six feet away, with Verdi's searing musical lines heightening the emotion as elementally as the song in a great antique drama.

Of course, it isn't quite so simple. MTL's distinctive quirks are to update both text and staging to the present day, and to shun the conventional operatic voice. La Traviata becomes a round of smart, boozy London parties. 'He is hung like a horse,' gushes one guest. 'I've always been so in control,' sighs Violetta to the tune of 'Ah, fors'e lui', before running away with Alfredo to read the Guardian and drink freshly squeezed supermarket fruit juice. The dominant figure is Alfredo's father, a monstrous, manipulative hybrid of Essex Man and Robert Maxwell, who crumples with guilt at the end - but for how long?

So far, so superficial, perhaps. It's the delivery by a cast of experienced actors that digs beneath the skin. Nick Broadhurst's pacy direction would reach only so far if David Burt wasn't able to show that beneath the awfulness of the father lurked a heart of - well, no, but something more than just a pump, anyhow. Tim Godwin takes risks in making Alfredo quite so fresh and vulnerable, which pay off when he catches the way an enforced growing-up collapses in confrontation with Violetta's new protector. And this Violetta, Mary Lincoln, does behave like somebody destroyed from within, simultaneously by lack of fulfilment and by an unidentified wasting disease.

The impact of the singing makes for a powerful surprise. You know how laboured opera can sound without the very finest singers, and how unconvincing a 'big' vocal projection is when scaled- down for a small space? But sing it like a musical, with actors' natural voices, and it works. The fastidious may be alarmed, but it isn't crude. Rather, a layer of artificiality is stripped off and subtleties emerge. Mary Lincoln has the phrasing and the bright top notes, although the vowel sounds are thin; the unorthodox display technique, in context, doesn't matter. Tim Godwin's callow but vibrant projection is just right for this character in this city.

It's a sleight of hand, and the implications are subversive. The message is that big opera companies don't have a monopoly on theatrical power, skill, or even style. Nobody would want to see opera MTL's way all the time, but this Traviata is a valid, truthful performance, more moving than most that you will see behind a proscenium. Tony Britten, who devised the translation and expertly reduced the score for a 'Trout' quintet of piano (himself) and strings, finely played, is on to something with an open-ended potential.

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