La Traviata, Royal Opera House, London

2.00

A 'Traviata' on shaky ground

If Alfredo's love for Violetta is indeed "the heartbeat of the universe", as he so ardently proclaims in the very first scene of La traviata, then this revival is urgently in need of open-heart surgery. It has been a year since the last exhumation of Richard Eyre's tepid staging, since when the temperature has dropped significantly. No fear of the elaborate ice sculpture at Violetta's party melting prematurely now; but some concern that our heroine will actually make it to Act III. There are many ways of dying on the operatic stage and, for Ana Maria Martinez, it began to look as if consumption might not be one of them.

The Puerto Rican soprano sang some performances of Violetta at the last revival, so her circumspection and awkwardness in Act I were doubly puzzling. This is, after all, her party and she, as her profession dictates, is a lady well used to keeping up appearances. You could certainly have fooled me that she was in the least bit interested in Alfredo, however well she sought to hide her feelings from the assembled company. He, too - in the figure of Charles Castronovo - barely registered on the Richter scale. By the end of the act, I was reminded of the old Hollywood joke - "If we ever have an affair and I find out about it..."

Rather more worrying, though, was the increasingly inescapable realisation that both singers were desperately over-parted in the roles. Martinez sang a nervous Act I in which passion and abandon were nowhere. Remember, this is a woman losing control. But Martinez sang so carefully and with so little fervour that the idea of love turning her world upside down became less likely with each passing bar. And then, to top it all, the fizzing pyrotechnics of "Sempre libera", far from sounding and feeling frivolous, had all the tensions of an audition piece.

The aria cannot and must not sound like a challenge. But Martinez, at the limit of her possibilities, even inserted a lower-octave appoggiatura to help spring-board her (only just) to the required top note in the unaccompanied section of the aria, and, not for the last time in the evening, fell prey to dodgy intonation. It was not an auspicious start for this Violetta. Or perhaps she was wondering, as I was, when she might call in the decorators to attend to the ill-fitting rotunda of the designer Bob Crowley's now tatty-looking salon.

At least Castronovo's bantamweight Alfredo displayed an ease of delivery and gracefulness of phrase that conveyed both youth and wealth. I like the covered warmth of this voice, and his refusal to push it where it does not naturally go. He's an eminently musical singer, but is slightly beyond his natural fach in this role. A bigger and more charismatic sound is ideally required.

We certainly got big and charismatic with the Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Germont senior. A fine voice. But what of the long-breathed, enriching legatos that at least hint at the compassionate soul beneath the stern patriarch? Lucic's stolid phrasing suggested all the compassion of a tax inspector.

But I guess what really finally sunk this lacklustre revival was a desperate lack of inner-tension. And for that I blame the conductor Philippe Auguin. He made his debut at Covent Garden with this opera back in 1994, so again, unfamiliarity cannot account for the clumsy inelegance of his conducting. I lost count of the sticky rubatos and awkward corners; climactic releases such as Violetta's "Amami, Alfredo" in Act II seemingly arrived from nowhere. There was no dramatic logic, no through-line to this conducting. It was, in two words, shapeless and passionless.

Things did at least settle somewhat for the final act. The beauty of the writing almost guarantees as much. Martinez was more comfortable in her demise, drawing some pathos from her forlorn pianissimos. At last, too, some sense of courage and resolve. But it came too late for Violetta and, more to the point, this performance.

In repertory to 30 January (020-7304 4000)

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