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La traviata

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The Royal Opera's autumn-winter Traviatathon has moved on to Cast C. Is that C for Cash Cow? Just so. The current revival has been in full swing (with breaks for refreshment) for three months already, with several weeks still to go, yet at the turning of the year Covent Garden was still bursting with appreciative punters. During these straitened times it is understandable that the company should play safe and follow the money; after all, in telling the tale of love and loss between a dying courtesan and a spoilt young man Verdi came up with some of his most lyrical and immediate music.

With the exception of the American tenor Stephen Costello, whose mellifluous Alfredo took an act or so to settle down, an experienced team has returned for this final leg. Maurizio Benini once more assumes the orchestral reins and Ermolena Jaho returns to sing her signature role – both of them for the third time in Richard Eyre's ageless production. (Jaho won her spurs as Violetta when she stood in for an indisposed Anna Netrebko two years ago; now comes the ironic news that the Russian diva has again withdrawn, this time from the pair of performances she was due to sing later this month.)

The veteran bass-baritone Robert Lloyd is in fine vocal fettle as Doctor Grenvil – although his failure to react when referred to by name in Act Three is one of several oversights in revival director Paul Higgins's less-than-slick restaging – and the Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte invests the small role of Flora Bervoix with uncommon clarity and vocal sweetness. Indeed, the freshness of practically all the ensemble work is commendable, coming so late in the run, with only the second-act table-dance lacking conviction.

Having been a Jaho-sceptic at previous encounters I was anticipating the familiar mix of variable intonation and inconsistent timbre, and in Violetta's public scenes the Albanian soprano was true to form. Intimate tragedy is definitely her thing, however, and by the time we reached the death-bed she was performing with such distressing intensity that I began to see what all the fuss is about. It helped that in Costello she has found an Alfredo she can do business with: a fervent lover and a petulant loser – just the man to break a girl's heart.

Unfortunately for Jaho, Germont Père on this occasion is the stentorian baritone Paolo Gavanelli, a familiar singer at this address yet one whose ‘park-and-bark' delivery belongs to another era. Gavanelli scarcely made eye contact with Violetta, and he offered no dramatic context at all for her self-sacrifice in Act Two. Instead, he was content to face the audience and articulate the notes with a direct, flat delivery that lacked both colour and cover.

Notwithstanding the familiarity of the score, Benini's conducting is revelatory. The breadth of his reading allows him to sear and surge at great moments such as Germont's cry of ‘Piangi!', and practically to show us the galloping horses described by Annina (Hanna Hipp) in Act Two. The ROH Orchestra is on fine form, in particular the woodwind (a clarinet solo of the utmost liquidity punctuates ‘Dammi tu forza, o cielo') and throughout the evening there is the sense of a well-oiled machine chugging nicely, if not exactly purring.

- Mark Valencia


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