OPERA: Seeing is not believing

La Traviata Royal Opera House London oo999

THE MOST indelible memory here of Richard Eyre's feeble 1994 staging of Verdi's exquisite tear-jerker comes at the very start. As ghostly violins eerily give notice of Violetta's untimely demise (a touch of genius on Verdi's part), the faded photograph of a young girl, an impoverished street urchin, adorning the front scrim seems to dissolve into the image of a beautiful young woman. She is expensively dressed in virginal white, tracing out the contours of her pallid complexion in a hand-held mirror. She is ill, that much is clear, and she is alone.

In two minutes or so of prelude, Eyre has given us the essential pre- history of this tragic heroine - her meteoric path to wealth, notoriety and an early grave. In 1994, this was also our first glimpse of a young singing sensation - Angela Gheorghiu. In this disappointing revival, the face and the voice belong to the French soprano Norah Amsellem. And it's a contrast almost as dramatic as that which Verdi himself springs when the chaste beauty of his prelude gives way to the riotous party of the opening scene.

A wash of orange light bathes Bob Crowley's ugly set in naughtiness. It is in poor repair, the creased and ill-fitting ceiling suggesting that Violetta's lavish home is urgently in need of restoration. To be fair to Crowley, he is at pains to stress the vulgarity of the Parisian demi- monde and his second party scene, at the home of the courtesan Flora, is a cheap and nasty nightmare of red and gold in which poorly choreographed dancers play out a Spanish divertissement on a gigantic card table. Frightful.

Amsellem has a voice and some temperament - no doubt about that. But the words and text are nowhere. She is far too preoccupied with vocal effect, and does little more than signal the emotions.

I didn't for one moment believe her protestations of true love in the opening scene, and "Sempre libera" was merely a fit of pyrotechnics with everything above the stave tending to sharpness, including the closing high E-flat - a big-money-note paid without interest.

The conductor, Maurizio Benini, must share some of the blame for indulging his star. He tended to extremes of tempo, most notably in Act Two, where Violetta finally succumbs to Giorgio Germont's demands that she renounce the love of his son for the sake of the family. Amsellem really laid on the shocked, near-inaudible pianissimi here, lingering self-consciously over the terms of her sacrifice. Again, I didn't believe her. And I certainly didn't believe her as she snuck a look at the conductor as if to ensure that he really was up for milking her big moment "Amami, Alfredo". No soprano can fail to make an impression with the final act but Amsellem, for all her conviction, tipped the balance from pathos to bathos, projecting only self-pity and madness - neither of which has any place in Verdi's text.

On a more positive note, Charles Castronovo, the suave young American tenor who made such an impression in the Royal Opera's last revival of Cosi Fan Tutte, reaffirmed his promise here as Alfredo Germont. He has a bantamweight voice, a little stretched in extremis but elegantly, graciously, in step with the bel canto tone of the score.

Gerald Finley's Giorgio Germont was a role debut. Its authority came naturally to him - he has an imposing stage presence. The text was precisely, purposefully, projected. But his voice did not yet sound free in the role. Those Verdian legatos need to marinate yet a while. But at least it was a performance that came from somewhere - which is more than could be said of the production and its star.

In repertory to 15 February (020-7304 4000)

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