La Traviata, Richmond Theatre & touring

Small but perfectly formed
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The Independent Culture

Reckless hedonism doesn't come cheap, least of all in opera. In Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, two scenes show Parisian party life in order to contrast its artificiality with the central characters' emotions. If you're going for debauched abandon, it helps to have a big chorus and a big stage, two things that, by the nature of its existence, English Touring Opera does not have.

The company probably doesn't want it any other way: its whole aesthetic is directed towards a commendable economy in terms of singers, sets and orchestra. That economy fosters ingenuity, but, perhaps inevitably, you sometimes get a certain dramatic miniaturisation, and so it is with the party scenes in Olivia Fuchs' new production of La Traviata.

Fuchs and her designer, Niki Turner, set the piece around 1930, so we get the regulation corsets and suspenders, the whips and the cross-dressing. But it all feels a little suburban, as if these people have only read about such exploits in the Sunday papers. That then undercuts the necessary if sentimental distinction between society and authentic emotion.

Elsewhere the staging works well. Turner's set has a slightly raised circular platform that, while pushing the singers towards the auditorium rather than towards each other, nevertheless focuses the action. The mirrored floor and walls, enigmatically adorned with huge Man Ray photographs, generate the right atmosphere of transience, and allow the action to move rapidly. All the singers do well by David Pountney's translation: some performers of much higher status could learn something here.

So, low-budget blips aside, we get the opera, not its shadow. It helps to have a singer who can carry the central role's dramatic weight. No Violetta, no opera, but ETO is fortunate in having Elena Ferrari as the admittedly not very frail consumptive. Here and there her voice sours under pressure, but her tone and phrasing are idiomatic and her emotional portrayal is always keenly felt.

In support, neither Antoni Garfield-Henry (Alfredo) nor Simon Neal (Giorgio Germont) has the sweetness you look for in Verdi, but both give forthright performances that rightly allow Violetta the limelight. All are well supported by conductor Andrew Greenwood, who knows how to get the best from his streamlined orchestra. The thin string sound may have been exaggerated by the Richmond Theatre's acoustic, but there was a fruity bite to the wind instruments, and everything had a real Verdian lilt.

An honourable touring production, then. Sometimes, though, I wish ETO would tackle works in which the act of reduction need not be so drastic. Baroque and contemporary operas may cause box office problems, but the game might be worth the candle.

With Massenet's 'Manon' at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (01227 787 787), 30 Oct-2 Nov, then Buxton, Wolverhampton, York & Bath (020-7820 1131 for details or www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)

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