To be properly controversial a production needs to divide
opinion down the middle, which is what English National Opera's new staging of La traviata will achieve if my opening-night eavesdroppings are anything to go by. One voice was ecstatic, another outraged. I wish I felt as
strongly either way.
The German director Peter Konwitschny fits snugly into
ENO's current fixation with European-style ‘director's theatre'. His designer Johannes Leiacker's set for Verdi's lavish opera comprises a single chair, a stack of books and layer upon layer of vast red curtains which are gradually peeled aside like a dance of the seven scenic veils, and within this expressionistic environment the consumptive courtesan Violetta approaches her demise. Crimson drapes are symbolic on many levels, not least the sexual one of our heroine's erotic allure; and once she has descended into wretchedness they (literally)
fall away, for who wants to play with a broken doll?
The young American Corinne Winters makes a UK début of startling assurance. Few Violettas of recent years have matched her for dramatic complexity or stage presence, and she has the requisite vocal resources in spades. Dressed as an emblematic Lulu in Act One, by the final scene Winters had shed her character's wig and persona and died as herself - watched from the stalls by her ineffectual admirers.
This breaking of the fourth wall shattered the focus on
Violetta at the very moment we should have been holding our breath, an uncertainty of tone that besets the whole production. There were unintended smirks to be had throughout, while Konwitschny's solution for clearing a cluttered stage before act three had all the polish of a bad school play. Yet such misjudgements will soon fade from the memory and leave behind the imprint of a heroic central performance by an exciting young soprano.
Refreshing, too, were the playing of the ENO Orchestra
under another house débutant, Michael Hofstetter, and the predictably rousing singing and acting of the ever-estimable ENO Chorus who overcame Martin Fitzpatrick's less-than-felicitous English translation and committed themselves thoroughly to their collective role.
The director's much-trumpeted decision to perform the
opera uninterrupted proved less revolutionary than it might appear. La traviata's four episodes are relatively short so the normal trio of intervals and pauses can play havoc with dramatic momentum; Konwitschny,
though, brings the whole thing in at under two hours by dint of some unobtrusive pruning plus the wholesale jettisoning of Verdi's party turns in the third scene. The result, though tough on Winters (who as a consequence of this distillation rarely leaves the stage), is all of a piece with the director's desire to place Violetta within a laboratory of moral vivisection, observed by useless
hypocrites no better than Job's Comforters.
To achieve his ends the director plays dirty with Verdi's
characterisations and presents Alfredo as a bookish nerd (the famous ‘Brindisi' becomes the self-conscious rendering of a poem from his notebook) with his father Germont as a monstrous man, socially adept and therefore disappointed in both his children - including the daughter whom he mentions in passing and who is given physical form here as a gawky counterpart to her brother. (Wearers of spectacles should note that Konwitschny does not think much of you. They mark
you out as a loser. Duffle coats are even worse.)
This vision of Germont as Scarpia's wayward brother was
powerfully conveyed by Anthony Michaels-Moore, even though his resonant timbre usually sounds cleaner than it did here. Ben Johnson as his son (and Violetta's flaky
suitor) is a marvellous young tenor who does self-pity very well, as he showed in ENO's The Elixir of Love, and his restrained account of Alfredo was evidently true to the director's intentions. One day, with luck, he may be given the opportunity to spread his Verdian wings rather more freely.