This production of Traviata is definitely a rather unique proposition. The set is reduced to the absolutely minimum, the three acts get compressed into one long stretch with cuts. On paper it seems like a hard sell but after seeing it, I am happy to report that Konwitschny’s take opens up some new avenues for interpretation (not all of them happily realised) and tightens the drama.
The set is a series of red velvet curtains further accentuated by bright red lighting. They become less opaque the further upstage one looks. With opening and closing to reveal less and more depth they seem to become a symbol for society. A force that smothers the love of Alfredo and Violetta.
The only piece of furniture present is one bentwood chair and as an alias of a seat a pile of oversized books for bookish Alfredo to rest and think of his beloved.
Traviata being a bona fide melodrama at its very heart helps suspend disbelief and to not miss too much any naturalistic sets or more descriptive environments. The main framework for the storytelling, in contrast to much more upholstered and glitzy versions, are the characters. The singers come to the fore framed by a predatory chorus that encircles them like vultures. The party scenes are particularly well done with the chorus singing with great force (if not perfect diction) their aggressive attitude scraping away the veneers of respectability. This crowd is not made out of friends of Violetta’s they use her as their plaything, a distraction Their enquiries in Act Two about the split up of the pair is coloured by envy. This almost Brechtian focusing on the drama away from any distractions
The Violetta of Corinne Winters (making her European debut) was endowed with a dark hued voice that was instantly charming and direct. She sang with great passion and dedication, hitting notes head on and being very physical. The fall off the chair while singing Sempre libera is a bit of an unconvincing oddity, accompanied by Alfredo singing from the front row of the Stalls. But overall the emotional journey was unwavering and not having the benefit of an interval and being almost constantly on stage, a tour de force. An interesting addition was that she wore a different wig for every Act but as a final gesture she took it off and died with her much longer hair actually on view. A moving gesture as a reference to the workings of theatrical artifice and a final dose of realism.
The Alfredo of Ben Johnson was enveloped in gold vowels but unfortunately also the most hideous stage wardrobe ever imagined. Somehow I will never agree with the director that Alfredo is just a bookish outsider in a doomed relationship from the very start. This costuming and his sheepish attitude detracted from a more balanced conjunction between score and stage action. But his singing was beyond reproach and full of ardour.
Germont pere was performed with disarming darkness by Anthony Michaels-Moore and even managed to make a phantom daughter (Konwitschny’s addition) work in his confrontation scene with Violetta. Making the implied reason for asking Violetta to leave Alfredo (bringing disrepute to his family and thus making difficult for his daughter to marry) added a motive for the early surrender by our leading lady. I can imagine some people would find it unnecessary but with the way Michaels-Moore interacts with her it did work and took the heat off the sometimes too brutal interaction between him and Violetta.
The chorus wearing evening dress are a wonderfully overwhelming presence and even their exist after the curtain comes down (here literally the sets of curtains used to delineate space fall down) they are left to rhythmically scale across the stage as the foreboding overture for Act Three begins. A few people found it amateurish and not well thought out. but it does work signifying the fall of the predators in Violetta’s life and especially with the Giorgio left in the distance to survey the ruins of his son’s life. The orchestra’s playing was exceptionally dramatic in the hands of Michael Hofstetter who added even more energy from the pit serving admirably well the production.
The final scene where Violetta fades away is very intelligent in its simplicity. She is left alone on the empty stage to live her last moments. She is happily back together with Alfredo but her illness separates them. In a coup de théâtre Annina, Doctor Grenvil (a great in-joke to have him appear for the last visit to Violetta still covered in streamers and a shiny party hat, after all he has always been a joke of a doctor for the duration of the work) and Alfredo are by standers to her drama from the side of the audience. The orchestra pit becoming the chasm between life and death. Also instead of collapsing on a big plump bed, Winters walks to the blacked out back of stage after the remaining set of black curtains has parted. A simple but satisfying way to bring this austere production to a close.
Konwitschny’s vision can only rise to a satisfying evening on the back of an exceptional cast as they are the unwavering focus of the direction. It seems that ENO managed to bring a trio of singers that work beautifully together and bring heart to this domestic melodrama. By not having an interval between Acts One and Two it does compromise the flow by not allowing for proper distance but the tautness we gain adds such a punch. The direction like the opera itself is unashamedly emotional and the cuts to the score paired with the sparse set creates a sense of isolation from the wider world, a reflection on the bubble of true love or maybe terminal illness. One can get carried away looking for symbols and metaphors in every turn of this production, but that is the ultimate triumph of it, being a tabula rasa for the audience. Making the story of loving the wrong person and being punished for it even more contemporary we could ever think it is. Go and see it even if you never been to ENO, it will surely make you think and hopefully move you!