The failure of the opening night of La Traviata at La Fenice in 1853 prompted Verdi to write to a friend saying "La Traviata last night a failure. My fault or the singers'? Time will tell…" Today, it is quite difficult to flick through the pages of opera magazines without noticing the countless productions of Verdi's masterpiece taking place in all four corners of the globe. I suspect this answers Verdi's question!
At the Royal Opera House last night, a man seated behind me explained the story of the "fallen woman" to an American couple. He complained that all heroines of opera tend to die, but what are we to expect from someone who is bigger than life, bigger than love even? In the process of redeeming herself, Violetta sacrifices everything for love, including love itself. Richard Eyre's production continues to disappoint. Its predictability and lack of insight can be painful at times. The production has achieved its popularity only as a result of the great singers that rotated within its unimaginative set. Last night's Marina Poplavskaya had rather big shoes to fill from Angela Gheorghiu to Anna Netrebko, not to mention the unsurpassed Renée Fleming.
While Poplavskaya was convincing in the Decker staging, she fails to find her character in Eyre's production. The discomfort of her performance in act one is matched by that of the whole cast; with her expressive and dramatic performance only serving to emphasise her vocal limitations leading to a rigid “Ah Fors' e Lui” cut in half and a safe “Sempre Libera”, she is uneven technically, with considerable stress at the top. Things however turn around in the second act; and we see a more confident Violetta with an impressive “Non Sapete” delivered with stinging urgency that clearly moves the audience (and the writer!). It helps having the bar raised by a brilliant Leo Nucci giving Poplavskaya the push she needed. Her last act is sharp, which serves her positively in underscoring the illness. However Violetta is more than a whore, more than a lover, and certainly more than a dying woman. What should be hidden in the voice is everything here, a clash of fragility and determination that Poplavskaya does not deliver this time round.
Leo Nucci is something of an institution and his performance as Germont doesn’t disappoint. He gives a brilliant performance, full of depth which elevates the entire night. The audience erupted after his stirring rendition of “Di Provenza”. His breath control might not be what it was 17 years ago in the same role, but the rich round voice hugs and warms all present.
Without a doubt, the weakest link in the cast is James Valenti. A lack of passion and a strain at the top give very little for Poplavskaya to work with. His “Ah Si, Da un Anno” is tight and his “Un Di” feels like he is reading a newspaper - where is the Alfredo that is looking for the words to win his love? “O Mio rimorso” is cut in half and his high C at the end fails. Another disappointment is conductor Jan Latham-Koenig in the pit. La Traviata is a beautiful score, the act three prelude alone guarantees a few tears but here there is nothing! It feels as though the orchestra is playing on its own in some of the most pivotal moments, making this one of the most lacklustre performances of this work in recent memory.