Opera: Verdi vanishes under Wagnerian values

Royal Opera: La Traviata Royal Albert Hall, London

That London, the musical capital of the world, should be entering the new millennium without any plans to build either a decent concert hall or a modern opera house is a national disgrace. Of course, we can't expect New Labour to spend The People's money on anything as elitist as classical music or opera - even though their elitism was the very reason that old Labour governments were the first to subsidise the arts, in order to let us all in on the act. Maybe London's mayor will ride to the rescue. Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast, even Basingstoke, all now boast splendid new concert halls; Edinburgh at last has its opera house. In Paris, political rivalry between city and state has resulted in the most generous operatic provision in Europe. But have we heard a single word on the subject from any of the prospective candidates? Perhaps, like everybody else interested in the operatic future of the capital, they're all keeping quiet until Sir Richard Eyre finally strides down the mountainside with his tablets of stone. As it is, he's still too busy scribbling to have had time to supervise the transfer of his own Royal Opera House Traviata into the airy expanses of the Royal Albert Hall.

And there's another national disgrace. It's laughable enough that the Proms, the world's greatest music festival, should yearly pour its artistic riches down the acoustic drain of the world's most pointless concert hall, but that, through criminal negligence (more on the part of decades of indolent Arts Council officials, I hasten to say, than of unjustly pilloried Opera House functionaries), the homeless Royal Opera should be forced to perform there too is beyond a joke. Tuesday night's Traviata was frankly a travesty. Elena Kelessidi is, I'm sure, an exceptional Violetta - she seems to have both the voice and the physique for the role (and, unlike her predecessor in the part, Angela Gheorghiu, doesn't go around boasting about whom she shares her bed with after the show). Marcelo Alvarez, the new tenor, is, I suspect, even better: young, virile, with wonderfully open vowels, rolling Italianate Rs, a ringing high C and a true sense of style, he's a real find (although oddly impersonal, as if he's copied it all from old records). Yes, the baritone, Vladimir Chernov, is a bit wooden of manner and inflexible of tone, but Simone Young is, I know, a hugely imaginative young conductor (although here she paced Verdi at a Wagnerian speed, without always injecting sufficient tension to sustain the line). The trouble is, they all seemed to be so very far away (and I was sitting in the stalls, not the gallery): stranded on their distant dais, beneath a circular bell jar of light, voices and orchestra alike were muffled by the hall's notorious acoustic gauze. (And, no, I'm not going deaf: I could still hear the persistent ring of the mobile phones and the constant, deadening drone of the air-conditioning.)

All of which needn't have been so bad if there had been anything actually happening on stage. But what little production there was in Eyre's original 1994 show has largely vanished along with Bob Crowley's overbearingly cumbersome sets - here replaced by giant shower-curtain-style projection- screens hung across the organ loft. The odd prop survives, of course: the rustic furniture from Violetta and Alfredo's country retreat (though it's now stranded in an open field, against a Cherry Orchard-like backdrop), the giant lamp-shade over Flora's gaming-table (obvious inspiration for Anish Kapoor's new Hayward Gallery installation). So too do those annoying bits of "business": the way Violetta fusses with her hair during the reverie of "Ah, fors'e lui", or dabs her face with cold water from the fountain before snapping out of it for "Follie!". And who can forget the twee little urchin girl who delivers Violetta's parting note? All this may have had some meaning for the original cast back in 1994, but with only Patrick Young available to "revive" the show, it was clear the principals were simply going through the prescribed motions: for true motive or emotion, one looked and listened in vain. But then, discounting any other factors, what can you expect when, at the heart of the drama, you have a Kazak, an Argentine and a Russian, all singing in Italian to a largely Anglophone (and surtitle-free) audience?

To 23 May, with various casts. Booking: 0171 589 8212

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