Overtures don't come much more enticing than the four-minute prelude Verdi wrote for La Traviata. It packs in more drama than some composers manage in whole operas. It begins in tense anxiety, swells towards emotional breakdown, trips into feigned lightheartedness before subsiding in exhaustion. Then suddenly the curtain rises and it's party time for the 19th-century Parisian beau monde.
Verdi calculated the grinding bathos of that transformation with cold precision, but at Friday's English National Opera revival of Jonathan Miller's production, the effect was somewhat vitiated by a round of applause for Bernard Culshaw's set. I'm all for an audience announcing its intention to get the most out of the evening, but surely a set doesn't deserve a round of applause until, like the singers, it's done its job, and that isn't until the end of the show.
On that count, I'm not convinced the set entirely earned its ovation. Its broad, high walls made an ample arena for that opening party, so full of bustle it was tempting to get up and join in. But although the decor changes for the crucially intimate scenes of the second and third acts, the palatial sense of space doesn't. While sets don't have to mirror the action, their inflexibility here leaves the singers lost in too much space, and the direction (handled for this revival by Steven Stead) doesn't offer them much help.
Fortunately Sandra Ford's Violetta manages to rise above the rigidly operatic naturalism. Although there is a tough, almost metallic edge to Ford's voice that she's not always able to soften, she shapes the lines beautifully, using them to delineate not a singing automaton, but a character who lives and breathes, albeit consumptively.
In Act I she looks terrific in the trousers that are the sign of Violetta's modernity: here is a woman whose beauty and energy might well bewitch all Paris. But then, confined to her bed for the climactic death scene, Ford racks her body in convulsive agonies that are rightly painful to watch. It's the kind of performance that catches the eye even when she's not singing, and if it makes the opera a one-woman show, that's vastly better than no show at all.
The men in her life are, of course, meant to be stiffly bourgeois hypocrites, but both Ashley Holland and John Holland as, respectively, Germont père and fils take that stiffness a little too far. Oh well, this was the first night of ENO's season; no doubt the conductor Noel Davies' safe pair of hands will encourage them to loosen up as the run continues, which it does for many weeks to come.
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