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)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor