by Rachel Beaumont

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Slap the gift horse: La traviata at ENO

La traviata
ENO
London Coliseum
Stalls H27, complimentary (thanks, Richard)
28 March 2018
ENO page

I’m thinking La traviata is one of the riskier operas. In a way that’s nonsense: its concise story, credible characters and extremely demonstrative music couldn’t be simpler. But that honey trap is part of the risk. The music has the character of a headstrong horse that will not be made to go where it does not want to go, no matter how the director beats it. Throw in a lead role which is actually really difficult to sing and you have the conditions for disaster.

I’m not sure I can say Daniel Kramer’s new production for ENO is a disaster but it certainly cavorts with disasterhood. I can say more surely that its casting doesn’t help matters. I like Claudia Boyle and enjoyed her Cecily in Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest. She looks and acts a good Violetta and has all the requisite notes. Unfortunately none of them are very loud. She and her Alfredo, Lukhanyo Moyake, seemed to me to be the quietest people on stage, an effect exacerbated by the very strong supporting cast, led in terms of decibels if nothing else by the scenery-munching, eardrum-bursting Aled Hall as Gaston. No amount of goodwill can make stars out of quiet voices and despite committed performances from both the production was undermined from the off.

I treat Kramer with some suspicion, partly because of his Tristan and Isolde for ENO and partly because of how he comes across in interviews, which I accept doesn’t necessarily have much impact on the potential success of his productions. Arriving suspicious, therefore, I was surprised to find I quite enjoyed acts one and two. Sure, they’re a little bit crass and obvious, but that’s quite refreshing after decades of Richard Eyre’s ve’y refained production for the Royal Opera. In fact, it’s a complete delight to see the Spanish dances with some sass to them, even if it means submitting to Jones’s nipple tassels.

The third act, though, really is a complete disaster and I expect will set the bar for me of how a production could be so wrong. Spoilers follow, which given Traviata’s wayward-nag-quality is already a bad sign. So Violetta is in a graveyard digging her own grave. The Mardi Gras revellers are not heard from outside her window (how could they be, she’s in a graveyard) but instead are a troupe of revellers revelling, unusually for revellers, through a graveyard. When Alfredo arrives he stays largely on one side of the stage, the side without Violetta in it, and the two sing of their love for each other across several meters of a stage empty but for Violetta’s half-dug grave. Then at the end I’m not entirely sure Violetta dies. I mean, I’m sure she does die, because Verdi doesn’t really give you any leeway on that, so the fact that I’m not sure means I think Kramer expected me to think that maybe she gets better. And yet maybe he doesn’t because the whole thing is set in a graveyard. And yet maybe he does because the whole graveyard thing is so obvious that maybe it’s an irony on Verdi’s morbid attitude. Whichever way, this is not the kind of dilemma I’m happy to be mired in at the end of La traviata.

I like to think that this is a kind of crucial failing of a production of La traviata. But maybe I’m just resentful that Verdi provides almost everything you need in order to feel swept up in emotion and very sad at the end, in a kind of cathartic or possibly just lazy way, and that a director who wants to ignore all of that easy emotional power is slapping a gift horse in the mouth. Why not give yourself the easy ride? Which brings me to my last grumble about the whole experience. The English translation is dire and line-breaking in a way that can’t be forgiven. Really, why not use what Verdi has given us?

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