Review: La traviata (Royal Opera House)

The return of Richard Eyre’s beloved production of Verdi’s most popular opera

Sergey Romanovsky as Alfredo and Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in La traviata (ROH)
Sergey Romanovsky as Alfredo and Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in La traviata (ROH)
©Tristram Kenton

Trav’s back, and she’s iller than ever. Verdi’s tear-jerker is upon us in the first of two manifestations this year (there’ll be another in June), but let no one begrudge the Royal Opera its moneyspinner. It's surefire hits like La traviata that pay for the likes of Written on Skin and The Nose.

La traviata, an adaptation of Dumas’ novel The Lady of the Camelias, traces the life of the courtesan Violetta as she renounces her trade for the love of a devoted man, finds domestic bliss in poverty, is ripped from her happiness and dies of consumption.

However familiar it is, the production still needs a good cast and tidy direction, and in both respects this latest revival scores highly. Daniele Rustioni conducts with a sure sense of pulse, his phrasing and tempo choices satisfying, his attention to balance between stage and pit exemplary. The ROH Orchestra could play this score in its collective sleep yet there was nothing routine about its playing.

On opening night Rustioni nursed two debutants through Verdi’s taxing first act. The tenor Sergey Romanovsky drifted sharp much of the time—a sure sign of nerves—and as a result Joyce El-Khoury seemed tense until the aptly titled solo aria "Sempre libera" (Always free) loosened her sinews. We can expect this to be nothing more a teething trouble, because thereafter they both sang like angels.

Romanovsky has a gorgeous, golden tenor voice and may well go on to become a major star. He certainly makes a plausibly dashing Alfredo. As for El-Khoury, she has nothing to prove to anyone except perhaps to the Royal Opera itself (for even director of opera Kasper Kolten has bemoaned the time it’s taken to bring the soprano to Covent Garden). She projects the character of Violetta with such engagement and vulnerability that I found myself willing her, just this once, to live happily ever after.

And what a taxing role Violetta is. She’s rarely offstage for longer than it takes to change a frock, and the focus never leaves her. Richard Eyre‘s venerable production has been graced by some of the great singers of our time, from Angela Georghiu to Renée Fleming, and with her brightly expressive timbre and powerful upper register El-Khoury shines with the best. Her final aria "Se una pudica vergine" (If a virtuous young woman), in which she frees Alfredo to find happiness with another, stopped all the clocks.

Baritone Artur Ruciński plays Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, with an attractive, even tone and an attentive ear, but his dramatic chops could do with a slug of the hot stuff. Too often on opening night he sang Verdi but not Germont, reluctant either to invest in the role or engage with the other leads.

In a solid supporting cast Yuriy Yurchuk as Baron Duphol made more of this cipher character than most baritones achieve, and David Shipley was a compassionate Doctor Grenvil. Props, too, to revival director Andrew Sinclair for reviving Eyre’s production so meticulously, although even he can’t stop the excessively genteel first act from seeming congested. Indeed, 40 minutes into the show I thought we were on for three stars. By the end we were flirting with five.

La traviata continues in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 1 February. It returns in June and July with a different cast.