You'll hear complaints that Richard Eyre's 1994 staging of La traviata has grown stale. I don't agree. Overfamiliar it may be, especially to critics, but it still looks good and in a careful revival it supplies a solid context for Verdi singers to strut their stuff.
Some aspects of it have become theatrically dated, though, especially the opening act where the elegance of Bob Crowley's set triumphs over practicality as the Royal Opera Chorus (on excellent form, by the way) squeezes in and out of a constricted space. The cheesy second-act dance routines feel a bit queasy now, too.
The latest revival of a show that's had more performances than many a west end musical — 150 and counting — has been double-cast and runs in repertoire for the best part of two months. It's a banker for the Royal Opera House and catnip to the best sopranos around.
Whether Marina Rebeka falls into that category is open to debate. She has a wonderfully rich, cushioned voice and sustains some blissful legato phrases, but on opening night it wasn't clear whether she has the measure of her role. Curious, since she has sung the role widely, including here in 2010; but something's amiss when Violetta seems less ill in act 3 than she did in act 1.
That oddity may partly be explained by the early intonation mishaps of her Alfredo, Ismael Jordi (nerves, perhaps), together with some disagreements over tempo with Marc Minkowski in the pit, during the duet 'Un dì felice'. These seemed to throw Rebeka off her game for the remainder of the opening act, and she faltered at the climax of her great aria 'Sempre libera'. The Latvian soprano clearly gave herself a good talking to during the first interval, though, and came out fighting.
If Jordi had a patchy evening, at least his timbre and tone were always pleasant — frank and youthful, if a little light — whereas Franco Vassallo gave a humdrum reading of his father, Giorgio. He was warm and accurate but the voice slipped into ugliness under pressure. But the overriding disappointment with both Germonts was their stilted stagecraft: junior all hand-scoops and generalised gestures while dad favoured the park-and-bark approach.
Elsewhere in the cast, Pamela Helen Stephen proved Stanislavski's maxim that there are no small parts, only small actors, with a startlingly well-sung and dramatically focused account of Annina, Violetta's maid. Angelica Voje (Flora) and Samuel Dale Johnson (Baron Douphol) were also outstanding.
And we mustn't forget the audience, many of whom were on rare form with their expectorant splutters. Poor Violetta: if she wasn't consumptive at the start of the evening she didn't stand a chance by the end with all the germs they threw at her. At times it felt like a Rocky Horror dress-up night. Bring your own cough.