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

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste