English National Opera
Winters and Johnson, ENO's Violetta and Alfredo
© Tristram Kenton 2013
Among the many things opera companies regularly aim for are productions of the most popular titles in the repertory that can be brought back, season after season, out of stock, while continuing to attract a public. Over recent decades, English National Opera has been able to summon up from its warehouse such marketable fixtures as Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto (from 1982), Mikado (1986) and Barber of Seville (1987), or Nicholas Hytner's Magic Flute (1988); the latter was finally retired at the beginning of the current season, but both Mikado and Barber are back during 2012–13 and still happily pulling in the crowds. Such fail-safe options, however, seem to come around less frequently these days. Though Miller's Traviata (1996) had respectable innings, its 2006 replacement — a curiosity set in nineteenth-century Dublin by opera novice director Conall Morrison — did not come back at all. Whether or not ENO's new version of Verdi's classic, which opened on February 2, will be a keeper remains to be seen.
The staging represented the U.K. opera debut of aging enfant terrible of German opera-direction Peter Konwitschny, now sixty-eight, and was a coproduction with Opera Graz. Visually pared down — Johannes Leiacker's designs consisted largely of the red velvet curtains of a theater ("a symbolic world of theater drapes that is both surreal and nightmare-like," explained Konwitschny in a program interview), together with a large pile of volumes representing Alfredo's nature as "a bookworm with a penchant for reading," plus a single chair. Not regularly explored by other directors of the piece, Alfredo's bookishness also tempted Konwitschny to work in the hoariest of visual book gags, when Violetta's new admirer began to read the words of the brindisi from a volume held in his hand, only to have it turned up the right way by a member of the chorus. (The old ones, they say, are always the best.)
Sparse though this modern-dress staging was, it did include a new character. Referred to merely as Girl and played by Kezhe Julian Temir, she was dragged into the action from behind the inevitable curtain during the scene in which Giorgio Germont persuades Violetta to leave his family alone; just as Alfredo was visualized as a socially gauche nerd with thick glasses and a duffle coat, cruelly mocked by Violetta's other guests, so Germont's daughter — who looked far too young to be contemplating marriage, or even engagement — had an almost identically geek-like appearance. With nothing to sing, her main contribution to the action was to allow herself to be knocked flat on the floor by her violent father, a gross and brutal bully. Later in the scene, Violetta herself revealed potentially violent impulses when she pulled a revolver from her handbag and threatened to shoot either herself or Germont, or perhaps both.
The general tendency of Konwitschny's Inszenierung to reduce Verdi's characters to one-dimensional caricatures was surely deliberate — though it scarcely made them more interesting. This was a comic-strip Traviata, devoid of ambiguities or subtleties of any kind. On the seriously limited level it aspired to, it worked reasonably well, though that is not saying a great deal. It was also presented with undeniable commitment by the entire company, though their regular duties were somewhat attenuated. Konwitschny played Traviata in a single act, running to some 110 minutes, and inevitably with cuts; the divertissement at Flora's party disappeared, as did the offstage carnival revelers of Act III, almost all second verses of individual numbers and the entirety of Germont's Act II cabaletta. Even so, this felt like a long, slow evening.
German conductor Michael Hofstetter made his ENO debut, drawing an appropriately glassy quality from the orchestra's strings in the Act I prelude, while scarcely demonstrating much aptitude as a Verdi stylist anywhere else — though he was loyal to someone's decision to add lengthy, unwritten pauses to the score, presumably to highlight moments of special dramatic significance the audience might (or arguably might not) otherwise have missed.
American soprano Corinne Winters was another ENO debutante, here playing Violetta as the toughest of tough cookies. Her vocalism was clean and expert, her buoyant soprano rising easily to the top of the range and encompassing the role's substantial challenges with apparent ease. Young English tenor Ben Johnson's Alfredo was equally confident, his lyric line charted with skill if not a great deal of charm — something essentially written out of the part on this occasion. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Germont was large and lavish in tone, though with a few harsh and unlovely sounds mixed in; they at least fitted Konwitschny's vision. On the whole, however, it was impossible not to feel that Michaels-Moore, like the rest of the cast, deserved a better frame for his interpretation.
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