Since its unveiling some 16 years ago, Richard Eyre's staging of La traviata has been not just the jewel but the Koh-i-noor in the Royal Opera's crown. It's easy to see why: Bob Crowley's designs are monumental and intricate, with just enough skew to please the modern eye. His palette thrills, his costumes dazzle. Revival after revival, this visual feast can survive the most anaemic of casts.
A couple of months from now Eyre's original Violetta, Angela Gheorghiu, will make a much-heralded return to this, the production that propelled her to international prominence back in 1994. So if the current outing feels like a dry run for the excitement to come, a bit perfunctory in places and low on verve, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised.
Verdi's lush operatic take on Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux camélias, in which he portrays the love affair of a dying courtesan, packs more wonderful tunes to the pound than anything he ever wrote. It's as if the composer needed to compensate for the slender nature of his story by jamming it chock-full of romantic music.
It's a massive sing for the leading lady, too, as Violetta is at the heart of the action in all four scenes. The Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who made her mark in this role when she stood in for an indisposed Anna Netrebko two years ago, now assumes it in her own right. Jaho has sung Violetta the world over, and with her vulnerable mien she certainly looks the part. But her voice is not a great instrument: it is squally under pressure and prone to flawed intonation during complex vocal passages.
Jaho's tenor is a fellow-Albanian, Saimir Pirgu. Nationality is all they have in common, though, for although Pirgu's clean, clear upper register is ideal for Verdi, the low-lying notes are scarcely there, while his limitations as an actor neutralise Alfredo's passion and anguish.
Thank heavens for the Russian bass Dmitri Hvorostovsky, so authoritative as Germont Père. His performance is a masterclass of vocal beauty and vibrant acting. Hvorostovsky's ability to dominate a crowded ensemble through the power of his stillness is quite masterly.
In truth, this whole revival is a mixed bag. Minor roles are adequately taken, but only Sarah Pring (Annina) and the venerable Robert Lloyd (Doctor Grenvil) convey much by way of energy. Listlessness also affects the singers of the usually excellent Royal Opera Chorus as they troop on and off for their two big scenes. Revival director Paul Higgins should slip some Red Bull into those champagne glasses.
At the end, the audience cheered to the rafters. Evidently a splendid time was had by… well, many. The Franco-Canadian conductor Yves Abel, in the pit for both this and the July run of La traviata, certainly earned plaudits for his beautifully shaped, ideally paced reading of the score, while of course Eyre and Crowley's classy staging always hits the spot. If only a set could take a bow.
- Mark Valencia