Renée Fleming was not just the jewel in the crown of this production but (judging from the billboards) of the entire Covent Garden season. One of the finest sopranos in the world, she is something of a Met darling and her appearances in the UK are few and far between. The Royal Opera pulled off quite a coup. In the title role of Richard Eyre’s La Traviata she was on familiar ground – it has been a staple in her repertoire since 2003 – but there was always speculation as to whether Violetta’s diamante shoulders could carry the weight of expectation.
I’m happy to report, therefore, that hopes were satiated – and surpassed. Too often with high-profile singers a burgeoning ego is crowbarred into a role without any real conviction, but Fleming charts Violetta’s journey from tart-with-a-heart to consumptive waif with focus and flair. Of course, a pretty voice always helps, and hers is indisputably special. One could rhapsodise about technique – she can swoop from grand coloratura to fluttering pianissimo with immaculate control – but what makes her soprano unique is its simple beauty and her natural interpretive style.
Crucially, for the credibility of the piece, Fleming operates within a glittering constellation of co-stars. What Joseph Calleja’s Alfredo lacks in physical charisma – one can’t claim red-hot passion between the pair – is made up by his pulse-quickening tenor voice. Its purity, strength and sustain made light work of the showcase arias, and added necessary romance to the duet exchanges, and his performance was duly commended at the curtain call. Thomas Hampson sang an excellent Giorgio Germont, and Monika-Evelin Liiv and Eddie Wade, as Flora and Baron Douphol respectively, offered fine support.
Another draw is the return of Eyre himself as director for this nth revival of a production first seen in 1994. Although his staging is firmly rooted in Verdi’s late mid-19th century context, it does a great deal more than literal translation, and his input here brought freshness and subtlety to the piece. The stifling scrum scenes in Acts I and II, coupled with Bob Crowley’s pitched and lurching sets, contrast the spaciousness of the final scene, highlighting Violetta’s emotional honesty and the poignancy of her eventual release.
Lesser conductors might have been knocked to the back-foot by the vocal brilliance but Antonio Pappano’s account delivered all the colour, richness and nuance one could ask for from Verdi’s score. There is no modish konzept here and little in the way of technical wizardry, but that’s all beside the point: this La Traviata is about musical excellence and good old-fashioned drama.
La Traviata plays at the Royal Opera House between 18 June and 3 July. The performance on 30 June will be broadcast live in cinemas throughout the UK and Europe as well as on Big Screens in various open-air locations, including Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf. A complete list of participating venues can be found at www.roh.org.uk