La traviata, New Theatre, Cardiff

How are the flighty fallen
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A year from now, Welsh National Opera should be firmly ensconced in Cardiff's new Millennium Centre in the Bay. The future looks bright for the company: bookings are well up, the repertoire for the next 18 months is richer and more enterprising than for any recent season, and finance is assured. In many artistic respects the company is in as good shape as ever, which is saying a lot.

The one cloud in the sky is their young music director, Tugan Sokhiev, who would emphatically not be my choice to take a major company into a spectacular new home. His conducting of Verdi's La traviata in the new Moshe Leiser/ Patrice Caurier staging, which opened in the New Theatre on Saturday, showed again his inexperience in the difficult art of accompanying stage music.

It was square and inflexible, one-paced, apparently unaware of the fact that opera singers have to breathe, and sometimes (not always) unresponsive to the flow of the drama. It had a certain verve, and apart from some poor ensemble the orchestra played spiritedly for him. But this is a modest tally for the conductor of a world-class company, which WNO is.

What's more, there's a suspicion that Sokhiev is hiding behind standard repertory: Bohème, Cav and Pag, Onegin and now Traviata, which he will also conduct on the first night in the new home. It's noticeable that he isn't in charge of Wozzeck, the first production in the Bay, or Strauss's Ariadne, the last in the New Theatre. Is he helping to shape policy, or merely stick-waving? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, we have this modish La traviata, updated (need one bother to say any more?) to modern retro-style settings, complete with neo-Sixties penthouse décor (designer, Christian Fenouillat), wall-to-wall chorus hip-wiggling, and the inevitable hospital ward for the last act. Alfredo (Peter Wedd) sings "De miei bollenti spiriti" into a mobile phone, for some reason; the dying Violetta (Nuccia Focile) brings in the carnival singers by zapping a TV remote control; and so on. In that shallow way some directors have, all this is justified on the grounds that Traviata was famously, from the start, a modern-dress opera. The fact that it makes nonsense of the work's inherently Victorian morality is ignored.

The production's virtue is that it gives room to the singers, with the one fiendish exception of "Sempre libera", whose second verse Focile has to deliver in a fit of alcoholic convulsions, with predictably disastrous results for her coloratura. Otherwise her performance - brought forward from later in the run because Alexia Cousin is unwell - is marvellously intense and compulsively watchable. Wedd's Alfredo is not vocally in her league, but he acts touchingly and will achieve a better Verdian line when he relaxes more. Christopher Purves is a fine, stolid Germont, almost radiant in "Di Provenza il mar".

And what astonishing music it all is! Not a highly original thought, I know, but reassuring amid the directorial bric-a-brac.

At New Theatre to 4 June, touring to 16 July (02920-878889; www.wno.org.uk)

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