Theatre: Bowing before the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie never do the demi-monde by halves

Violetta's a cross-dresser, but who exactly are the other denizens of this demi-monde? Edward Seckerson relishes the detail in Jonathan Miller's new staging of 'La traviata'

Just when you're thinking Jonathan Miller has gone soft, even flabby, or, worse still, comfortable on you, out comes that wicked sense of humour to reassure you that not even the gentle drawing-room manners of La traviata are entirely beyond its reach. Be honest, haven't you always secretly hoped that someone, one day, would call time on that absurd "entertainment" at Flora's house-party in Act 2 and send it up sky-high? "We are gypsies gay and youthful" (or something along those lines) sing Miller's somewhat reluctant crew of dowdy dowagers with tambourines. Arthritic matadors follow suit, all of them hand-picked from among the senior ranks of the ENO chorus. It's the good doctor at his best - a sticky piece of operatic archaism made palatable for a modern audience. Miller even makes a virtue of the absurdly arch-English translation: "Edmund Tracey, 1973 (revised 1996)", we're told. Revised? By whom?

But then the thought occurs, are we really expected to believe that a bright young socialite like Flora Bervoix would people her parties with has-beens like this, rich and influential or not? Is she nervous about the competition? Is this a deliberate ploy to keep her at the centre of attention? To parade her youth where it may shine? The same might be said of our heroine as the curtain rises on Act 1. For a moment or two, Miller wrong-foots you with a flash of sexual ambiguity: Violetta is the one in the tight black pants and waistcoat, fashionably decadent. She/he demonstratively greets Flora. There's a hint of same-sex provocation in the kiss, a touch of Victor / Victoria, Violetta playing man in a man's world.

But who are all these boring people around her? They don't look like the height of fashionable society. What does Violetta see in them? Does her crowd, the in-crowd, arrive later? There's another problem, too: the decor. What's with these sponged designer-guild walls? Are they now written into the contract for every Miller production? Bernard Culshaw was responsible for these rather poor specimens, and one assumes that his brief was to "be discreet", to provide a basic (very basic) context for Clare Mitchell's frumpy period costumes. Presumably sets like these are intended to disappear, get out of the way of the dramatic business in hand. But they don't, do they? On the contrary, their paltriness is a constant distraction.

But the strength of Miller's productions is always in the small print, the fine detail. Violetta casually picking up a spoon in the first scene and happening to catch sight of her reflection in it. It's almost incidental, but it's the first sign we have that she is haunted by her sickness wherever she looks. That's a typical Miller touch. He's a seasoned observer of human behaviour, mannerism, body language. He's good on one-to-ones, and Traviata is full of them. The entire piece can stand or fall on that key encounter between Violetta and Alfredo's father in Act 2. Miller rises to it. Underlying the entire scene is the distinct feeling that Germont pere is probably all too well acquainted with ladies of ill-repute like Violetta. His acute discomfort at her touch at once suggests both guilt and the inability to deal with real emotion. "Embrace me as you would your daughter," pleads Violetta in desperate need of human contact, and his embarrassment speaks volumes. He demands, others obey. That's all he knows.

Christopher Robertson and Rosa Mannion played the scene marvellously, believably. Whatever your feelings about Miller, he knows how to engage his performers, empower them to go that extra distance. For Robertson, empowering was all about trading on the authoritative ring of his voice, not being seen (or heard) to yield for a moment. For Mannion, it was making real for us the pain of Violetta's sacrifice - and that's all about taking risks. But you can take those risks, if you are completely secure in your technique. This lady is. In Act 1, the idea of true love as a dream, a destiny as yet unfulfilled, was beautifully conveyed, phrases spun long and fine and daringly soft. Lots of air around the sound. In Act 2, the sudden darkening of chest tones into "He has no heart" was in itself a terrible portent of what Violetta was about to hear. And then the great emotional climax of the piece - "Love me, Alfredo" - sung from a full heart but with hands outstretched in a gesture that said "Keep away". That has to be the way to play it.

The slow rise of the curtain into Act 3 deceives us for a second into thinking that it is Violetta we see standing, like some apparition, in her white dress. But the dress is mounted on a tailor's dummy, a poignant reminder of past happiness, and our eyes are drawn instead to Violetta's tiny bed. She never leaves it, despite all efforts to do so. Alfredo (John Hudson growing into his voice but not his stage presence) awkwardly, touchingly, joins her there, and for a time we almost forget how heavy-handed Steven Mercurio's conducting has been. Miller's may be the big name on the bill. But this is Mannion's night, and she's earned it.

In rep to 15 Nov. Booking: 0171-632 8300. Production sponsored by Schroders

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