Opera heroine courts trouble with trousers

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The question on everyone's lips was whether he had pushed the boundaries too far. Jonathan Miller opened his new production of La Traviata at the English National Opera on Thursday with an unusual twist - a heroine in trousers.

The opera's first act is set in glittering 1850s Paris, where the courtesan Violetta, doomed to die of consumption in her lover's arms, traditionally wears an evening gown as she hosts a supper party for friends.

But Dr Miller, with his customary element of surprise, decided that Violetta should wear black trousers and a waistcoat. It was a decision which divided the audience and dominated the opera.

David Gillard, reviewing the production which opened ENO's new season for the Daily Mail, observed: "In Jonathan Miller's uncharacteristically dreary new production of Verdi's great romance it is Violetta . . . who wears the trousers - literally."

Graeme Kay, editor of Opera Now, said the move appeared to evoke the bohemian chic of the female novelist George Sand, who had an affair with Chopin. "The suggestion may be that Violetta was rather more intellectual than people might have supposed of a courtesan."

The other female guests in Act I were dressed in the crinolines and off-the-shoulder ballgowns of the era, as Verdi intended. He wrote the opera when a vogue of realism was emerging and wanted the production to be in dress of the day.

Dr Miller flew out of Britain yesterday, but Clare Mitchell, the costume designer, said he had been convinced from the first that Violetta - sung by Rosa Mannion - should wear trousers. The soprano initially had doubts but was won over after several fittings and one trouser-suit had been discarded. Ms Mitchell explained: "One of the main reasons for it was to give her some freedom of movement. It was very much the idea of freedom of spirit. That is what Violetta was at first: this very free person."

In the second act it was decided that Violetta should wear a flowing white dress and in the third act she is confined to bed in a nightgown.

Ms Mitchell said another motive for putting Violetta in trousers was to signify that she was a free-thinker and a rebel. "There was a very strong feeling that she would wear what she felt comfortable in." She added that it was not distorting history to dress her in men's clothing. Bohemian women of the period did wear trousers.

ENO is depending on the production to be one of the blockbusters of its new season. Early reviews highly praised Mannion's performance. Sixteen more performances are scheduled at the Coliseum between now and mid-November.