La traviata (London Coliseum)

A swift return for Peter Konwitschny’s red curtain production of Verdi’s opera

Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta in the opening scene of La traviata (ENO)
Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta in the opening scene of La traviata (ENO)
© Donald Cooper
As you were, everybody. Peter Konwitschny‘s abbreviated, pared-back production hasn’t changed in the two years since the crimson drapes first parted and neither has my reaction to it (link below), except that this time round there’s the added perspective of familiarity.

While Mika Blauensteiner has revived this La traviata-lite faithfully, certain things that grated originally now seem unremarkable. The (unscripted) presence of Germont’s daughter and her father’s abusive treatment of her, for instance, provoke a reaction of, well, meh.

The cast is as before except in two crucial respects: the conductor and the leading lady. Elizabeth Zharoff, who takes over as Violetta from the lauded Corinne Winters, has a class act to follow and she acquits herself well. It’s an intensive sing – most of Konwitschny’s abridgements affect other characters and Violetta is barely offstage long enough to switch wigs – but she husbands her resources carefully and there is no sense of creeping tiredness as there is, late on, with Ben Johnson‘s otherwise sweetly sung, bookishly comfy Alfredo.

The Californian soprano has a fast vibrato, as we often hear these days from young American singers, but she uses it to expressive effect while sidestepping the role’s pitfalls ("Sempre libre" has lured many an unsuspecting diva onto the shrieking rocks before now). She articulates Violetta’s decline with exemplary clarity in a spirited and impressive UK debut.

Roland Böer conducts without caprice or idiosyncrasy, but he favours fastish speeds that don’t always sit well with Martin Fitzpatrick‘s heavy-footed translation. There was one passage when Zharoff had the devil of a job spitting her words out in time. (This isn’t the place to debate the merits or otherwise of singing Verdi in English… but I do wish they wouldn’t.) Needless to say, the superb ENO Orchestra and Chorus respond like angels to everything Böer asks of them.

'Konwitschny’s production doesn’t reward repeated viewings'

There is one respect in which this revival scores over the first incarnation, and that’s the Germont of Anthony Michaels-Moore. In an era when great Verdi baritones are at a premium I'd defy you to name anyone finer. In 2013 Michaels-Moore was below par for some reason, but here he is at his most radiant: warm, full-toned and with a complete palette of expressive colours. His subtle use of portamento during Germont’s great aria, "Di Provenza", was the evening’s high spot.

As for Konwitschny’s production, it doesn’t reward repeated viewings. There are too many arch goings-on (all that curtain-pulling; all that phantom curtain-pulling) and his imagination was clearly foxed by the minimalism of Johannes Leiacker‘s red-red set when all he could think of doing to the single chair and pile of books was to kick them over.

More crucially, it was a poor idea to place not just Alfredo and Germont but also Martin Lamb‘s Dr Grenvil and Valerie Reid‘s Annina in the stalls aisles during the final scene. The idea was to allow Violetta to hold the stage alone, but it would have helped if the director had popped up to the circles and balcony during rehearsals to check on sightlines. From my privileged seat I had a marvellous view of Reid’s concentrated performance; I doubt whether everyone did.