Sleek, elegant, colourful and bold. Yes, it's hard to fault the furniture in Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's new production of La traviata for Welsh National Opera. Klieg lights loom over delicate side-tables. Satin armchairs snuggle up to zinc-topped wet-bars. 19th-century Paris? Je crois que non, cheri. This is opera Schrager-style.
Squint hard at Christian Fenouillat's hotel-chic set and you could almost be in the lobby of The Hudson. And why not? Consumption is making a come-back and I daresay there are still women like Violetta Valéry who depend on rich "friends" to keep them in canapés. But what about Alfredo?
Would any modern metrosexual damage his sister's marriage prospects through a brief liaison with a model-actress-whatever? Hardly. But anachronism be damned! To hell with suspension of disbelief! Sell, sell, sell your shares in Kleenex! Despite La traviata's luxury contemporary setting, the multiple hints of Do Not Disturb deliquescence and power-showered, room-serviced ecstasy, there is not one scintilla of erotic or romantic connection between this Violetta (Nuccia Focile) and Alfredo (Peter Wedd), nor is there any hint that our heroine is suffering more than slight indigestion until we see her on a hospital gurney in Act III; watching the telly and flicking through Vogue, as one does when one is down to one's last louis and about to die.
Direction as vapid as this is rare indeed. Why does Alfredo sing his prelapsarian Act II aria down a mobile phone? Who is he calling? Who are these people? (I mean Violetta and Alfredo, though the question might equally apply to Caurier and Leiser.) What woman removes make-up and earrings before kicking off her four-inch heels? And why should we care about her and her lover when they give so little evidence of caring about each other?
Over nearly three hours, I counted four instances of eye-contact between Alfredo and Violetta. With some of Covent Garden's "classic" productions, this is routine, but there, at least, the singing and conducting is of a far higher standard. WNO's Music Director Tugan Sokhiev is not a natural Verdian: too brash and inorganic in his dynamics and notably unsympathetic to his sterling chorus. The one bright spot in this otherwise bewilderingly bad and unaffecting production is Christopher Purves's Giorgio Germont: hopelessly under-directed but singing with consummate gravity and pathos. Wedd shows a pleasant light tenor but his Alfredo lacks even Focile's off-the-peg passion. To be fair to her, this was a role she was due to step into a month from hence so some allowances should be made for the hammy hand-wringing, if not her sudden silence in the last roulades of Sempre libera: here transposed down a semitone but still minus what was therefore supposed to be the climactic top D. Oh dear.
Caurier and Leiser have made their names with chic, pretty productions. But La traviata is not a chic, pretty opera. It is sad and bloody and mucky and - at best - truly disturbing. In short, the kind of work that WNO normally do best. Did I cry in Cardiff? Only with relief. Had as much attention been paid to establishing Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio's interior lives as to their interior decor, a slick contemporary setting could have worked. With a change of cast and a revival director who cares more about infirmity, intimacy, passion, regret, poverty, self-deception and shame than soft furnishing and light-boxes, it may still. And if La traviata is to fill the Millennium Centre when WNO changes address next year, it'll have to.
That set designers are influenced by commercial decor is understandable given how much time they spend away from home. But life isn't all boutique hotels. In reviewing Opera North's "Eight Little Greats" season over the last two months, I realise I have yet to mention Johan Engels: designer for all eight operas and something of a genius at striking, organic, original design within a tight, economical framework. It's much to his credit - and that of all of the performers involved in this ground-breaking ensemble project - that each opera has so successfully created its own world that his sets become real for the duration of the music: whether crude and cartoonish (for David Pountney's production of The Seven Deadly Sins) or cruel and corrupted and oddly like that nice bar around the corner to the right from the Grand Theatre (for Christopher Alden's Djamileh). Bizet's sleazy Orientalist bodice-ripper won't be featuring on my desert island play-list, but this was, again, a triumph for Engels, Alden and Opera North's excellent cast. With Pountney's gleefully vulgar vision of the Weill - dominated by dancer Beate Vollack's extraordinary Anna II and Martin André's ever-scintillating conducting - this is yet another fascinating double-bill in a season that has seen hits outnumber misses by a satisfying 6-2. Catch it on tour if you can.
'La traviata': New Theatre, Cardiff (029 2087 8889), to 4 June then touring. 'Djamileh'/ 'The Seven Deadly Sins', Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0870 905 5060), from 1 June, then touringReuse content