Move over, Molly Malone, Violetta's in town. Dublin's fair city is, for sure, a new location for Verdi's La Traviata but a familiar one for the Abbey Theatre's Conall Morrison, who presumably found the familiarity reassuring for his directorial debut in opera. Quite what it was supposed to mean for the rest of us is less sure. We could, in point of fact, be anywhere.
The translation by Stephen Clark throws in some convenient references to the Catholic and Protestant divide, but everybody still speaks (or rather sings) in that all-purpose, archly enunciated, operatic way, and the visual information (barring the odd Dublin landmark glimpsed through open windows) appears generically 19th-century. So, given that Verdi was looking towards a new kind of stage realism in his portrayal of the life and times of Alexandre Dumas's tragic heroine, what exactly have Morrison and his designer Francis O'Connor brought to Traviata that we haven't seen before? Not a lot.
It's interesting how the Royal Opera and now ENO (in its first Traviata for a decade) have engaged first-time opera directors for this really rather tricky piece. It's interesting, too, but hardly surprising how Richard Eyre and now Morrison have both come over as rather nonplussed by the emotional shorthand of the musical dramatisation. Neither has really breathed life into the subtext nor found ways of turning the operatic manner to their advantage.
None of Morrison's principals - not even the talented Emma Bell's Violetta - emerge as flesh-and-blood creations. All are given to meaningless operatic posturing, their frustrations and irritations generally taken out on inanimate objects - a chair, a pack of cards, a bowl of fruit. If the moment calls for a gesture of defiance, of remorse, of jubilation, it's pinned on and then discarded like a name-tag. It doesn't feel like it's come from anywhere. Even O'Connor's attempts at Chekhovian realism in Act II look sketchy at best.
The opening of the opera brings a neat reversal of fortune from Morrison, as the dying Violetta is glimpsed, ghost-like, in the midst of a huge, derelict room while all around her the furniture is reassembled, the dust covers removed, the chandelier raised and relit, Phantom of the Opera-style, to its former glory in readiness for her party. But then, Verdi's prelude - with its ethereal premonitions of Violetta's death scene - more or less does the job for him. Morrison merely picks up on the emotional subtext.
He needed to do so more often. Violetta takes a timely swig of Dutch courage in the pause before launching into the cabaletta of her defiant "empty but free" aria at the climax of that first scene. Nice touch. It works because it underlines her intoxication and her abandon, because it's "in the moment". Bell was certainly in that moment, flinging off the demanding embellishments, filling the word "joy" with something approaching genuine delirium. Her big, vibrant voice is wonderfully flexible with thrilling, chandelier-rattling top notes melting to equally arresting, half-lit shadings. The words "mystery eternal" brought just that, the voice magically taken away. With her strong middle voice she is able to give all that Verdi asks and more - vocally. And yet, for all her perceived vulnerability in the final scene, I was never really touched by her. Something haughty in the manner seemed to intrude.
Or maybe Dwayne Jones's somewhat flaccid Alfredo (a late replacement for the indisposed Rhys Meirion) simply created an imbalance. The young Australian still has some way to go, the promise as yet compromised by woolly rhythm and curiously erratic projection. He was nervous, sure, but the tension in the singing seemed to come and go. Not so James Westman's Germont Snr, though in this instance a decent voice was not matched by meaningful phrasing.
Jonathan Darlington's conducting emphasised the score's primary colours. Rudimentary is probably the word. Rather like the staging.
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