La traviata, The Coliseum, London</br>La finta giardiniera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Conspicuous consumption in Dublin
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The Independent Culture

From its inception, La traviata has been subject to random relocation. So subversive was Verdi's opera considered before its premiere that the Venetian authorities insisted it be set in 1700. To this day, it remains malleable. As Willy Decker's abstracted modern-dress Salzburg Festival production showed, you can set La traviata anywhere or nowhere in particular, provided the relationships between the characters have depth and credibility and Violetta's built-in obsolescence as a desirable commodity is clear. If they don't and it isn't, this cruel drama on the disconnect between received and actual morality is little more than a maudlin melodrama.

Conall Morrison's debut production for English National Opera sets the opera in the elegant terraces and disease-ridden tenements of late 19th-century Dublin, with its consumptive heroine as a Maud Gonne gone wrong. Substituting late 19th-century Dublin for early 19th-century Paris and a potting shed in Co. Wicklow for "a country house near Paris" is not problematic per se, though it is curious that Stephen Clark's crude translation makes no reference to either location, or that of the Germont family seat, thereby neutering Verdi's sublime portrait of the Mediterranean in di Provenza il mar, il suol.

More distracting is the frequent use of neologisms such as "I can feel your pain", and a scatter-brained sectarian subtext in which Violetta is a Protestant, Alfredo a Catholic, and Germont a hypocritical prig who would presumably prefer his son to fall in love with a courtesan who knows her catechism.

I don't doubt there was a fearful amount of religious prejudice in 19th-century Dublin. But having created a superfluous backstory to support his mise en scène, Morrison is unable to exploit it within the confines of an opera that has nothing to do with sectarianism. Instead, he concentrates on coralling the chorus at the back of the stage, where they sing very well, while a half-dozen dancers manoeuvre crates of Guinness (Act I), swing from a chandelier (Act II), and bumble about looking impoverished behind the heroine's oddly public tenement death-bed (Act III). As stagecraft goes, this is pretty amateurish, and is further compounded by Morrison's apparent indifference to the development of the three central characters.

Though Emma Bell's coloratura is beautifully phrased and her top notes artfully spun, she is too sturdy and self-contained a singer to convey Violetta's desperation for redemption, her terror of dying, or the near-delusional intensity of unselfish love, much less the practised prettiness of a professional mistress. Stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed Rhys Meirion as Alfredo, Dwayne Jones has a smooth, sweet, easy voice, with plenty of space at the top. But he needs a coach who can wring some passion and grit from him, someone to explain how to express Alfredo's impetuosity, and a better tailor. As Germont, James Westman sings well enough but moves as though each of his limbs were in a plaster cast, and does little to win any sympathy for this complex character. All three singers are criminally under-directed.

In a production littered with pointless stage business and inauspicious debuts of one kind or another, only one debuting artist truly shone - conductor James Darlington. I've heard some impressive performances from the ENO orchestra - Andrew Litton's Billy Budd, Roland Baer's La clemenza di Tito - but none in which they have achieved and maintained such a silky sonority. In tone and tempo, Darlington captures the perfect balance of pathos and urgency, making the imminence of Violetta's death more immediate than any amount of starving babes in swaddling, and straddles the roles of accompanist and animator with great confidence. For the orchestral performance alone, and I do mean alone, this La traviata is certainly worth hearing.

Few would claim masterpiece status for La finta Giardiniera, the last of Mozart's juvenile operas. The dramaturgy is uneven, lurching from off-the-peg romantic intrigue to a curious recapitulation of the baroque device of lost reason, the score erratic in its use of style galant, comic effects, Gluckian recitatives and definitively Mozartian ensembles, the variously faithful or inconstant servants or aristocrats more interesting for who they will become in later operas than for who they are in this one. Nonetheless, the modern-dress Royal Opera House production, directed by Annika Haller in Christoph Loy's absence, is both charming and fascinating.

Under John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists play characterfully and incisively, filling the auditorium so well that one regrets they are not to be heard in Covent Garden more often. Haller has a light directorial style, and though I've yet to see anyone divulge their deepest desires while standing with one foot on a chair, the comic use of the water-feature at the front of Herbert Murauer's set garnered plenty of laughter from an unstuffy matinee audience at the second performance.

Genia Kühmeier's ardent, if sharp, Sandrina is the moral and musical lynchpin, with Kurt Streit (Don Anchise), Sophie Koch (Ramiro), Christopher Maltman (Nardo), Patrizia Bicciere (Serpetta), and Robert Murray (Belfiore) an excellent supporting cast, and Camilla Tilling's kittenish Arminda a gleefully camp foil to her romantic rival's seriousness. Go and see it now, for it's unlikely this opera will be staged again without an anniversary to justify it.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

La traviata (0870 145 0200) to 16 November; La finta giardiniera (020 7304 4000) to 7 October

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