Ever fallen in love with someone you weren’t meant to fall in love with? That’s the crux of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata which, unusually for a story in this genre, sees an odd couple meet by chance and fall in love before one of them dies (at least pretend to look surprised).
This latest revival arrives under something of a cloud at the English National Opera. Costly failures like the Damon Albarn-powered Dr Dee have seen it return to more populist fare, while the Arts Council have told the ENO to improve its business model or face funding cuts. You don’t need to be Sir Alan Sugar to spot the obvious solution in place here; a few classics from Italian masters like Verdi and Puccini will help bring in the traditional punters between upcoming newer shows like Stephen Sondheim’s take on Sweeney Toddfeaturing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson.
La Traviata, which literally translates as “The Fallen Woman”, is one of opera’s timeless stories albeit one of its most depressing. From the off, Verdi kicks away the chair and leaves us hanging: Act One sees Violetta (Elizabeth Zharoff) coughing away her life as her decadent friends party, celebrating her apparent recovery from tuberculosis. Among the revellers, she finds comfort in the unlikely form of nobleman Alfredo (Ben Johnson), played here as a portly geek in specs and cardigan.
How a book-clutching nerd wins over the heart of the beautiful Violetta is barely convincing. The romantic antics are hamstrung by the English libretto; soaring words of love which originally flew high on vowel-rich Italian have their wings clipped here by Martin Fitzpatrick’s consonant-heavy translation. The occasionally awkward choreography dilutes the sexual chemistry created by Verdi’s heartbreaking plot.
Johannes Leiacker’s set design is a Freudian field day consisting largely of red curtains which fold away to reveal more pairs of curtains set further and further back. Its simplicity underscores director Peter Konwitschny’s intense and minimalist vision, evidenced elsewhere by the lack of interval and no repeats of arias or divertissements at the opening party. Cross those legs and focus on the story seems to be the message here.
Violetta herself is an affecting creature throughout but Zharoff”s vibrato is a touch too rapid and aggressive when power is required. Her beau’s vocals, like his general demeanour, are too meek to make a strong enough impression. Shards of comedy leaven the more downbeat scenes, though getting the cast members to walk up and down the stall aisles was more distracting than entrancing, especially at the poignant finale. Having Alfredo emoting at your elbow may seem like an intriguing twist but it unbalances the overall effect.
Konwitschny’s version hits home hardest when exposing the cynical superficiality of Violetta’s society, populated by hedonistic delinquents. This is exemplified in the last act when our heroine, desperately ill, calls a doctor; the medic arrives to attend to her dying body still wearing a party hat. Only as she lies breathing her last do we buy into the desperation and loneliness that has driven her from the start and become completely engaged. It’s just a pity that this comes so late.
La Traviata continues at the Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane WC2, until 13 March. More information can be found on the ENO website.