17 Mar 2018

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

English National Opera 's previous production, Peter Konwitschny's stripped down, anti-romantic and dystopic view very much failed the second requirement by not attracting wider audiences. So artistic director Daniel Kramer 's new production had quite a lot riding on it. Kramer's vision proved to be vividly eager to please, with over-the-top party scenes, but also an interesting take on Violetta's journey.

A co-production with Theater Basel where has already debuted, English National Opera premiered the new production of Verdi's La traviata on Friday 16 March 2018, Daniel Kramer directed and Leo McFall conducted, sets were by Lizzie Clachan and costumes by Esther Bialas , lighting by Charles Balfour and choreography by Teresa Rotemberg. Irish soprano Claudia Boyle sang Violetta with South African tenor Lukhanyo Moyake as Alfredo, making his UK debut. Veteran baritone Alan Opie sang Germont, a role he first sang in 1988 and marking his fiftieth year singing with the company!

Leo McFall conducted a lithe and shapely account of the prelude (with the curtain down), and then we launched into Act One. Kramer and his team set it in a sort of 1930s bordello, all mirrored walls and hyper-active staging, this party was desperate to please. Whilst the style was loosely 1930s, with plenty of Weimar Republic-style references in the staging, Violetta's costumes throughout were of a different era (more 1940s) rather setting her out from her contemporaries. For Act Two we moved to a plain, stripped down stage, just a swing, grass and a flower bed, but with Flora's party, we reverted to the style of Act One. During this latter party, mattresses were in evidence, and these re-occurred in the last Act, laid out regularly and evoking graves. At the front, Violetta was digging her own grave.

Traviata Cast Chorus.jpg ENO cast and chorus. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Kramer's production was far too inclined to tell us what to think, rather than allowing us to make our own decisions. The party scenes were desperately insistent, but more worrying was the emphasis on death. In Act Two scene one, the flow bed could be read as a grave and Violetta gathers flowers, Ophelia-like, and at one point hides herself beneath the turf. Then at Flora's party, the women's make-up seemed to evoke the Mexican day of the dead, and of course, in the last act, we had Violetta digging her own grave in the cemetery. One idea would be interesting, but all of them together became rather too much.

Soprano Claudia Boyle has formerly sung Leila in The Pearl Fishers and Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance at ENO, and Violetta is a big leap but she has also been on the young artist programme at the Salzburg Festival. The staging in Act One was very unhelpful both to her and Lukhanyo Moyake's Alfredo, the chorus was visually and aurally too dominant so that Kramer seemed to be blurring the boundaries between solo and ensemble, but this meant Boyle's contributions were insufficiently spot-lit. For the great Act One finale, she showed sparkling style with the coloratura, but the desperation present in her acting did not quite connect with her singing but this is something which will come. Lyric sopranos tend to find the subsequent acts of La traviata difficult as they require remarkable reserves of strength. Whilst never displaying a lyrico spinto amplitude, Boyle developed a remarkably wiry sense of strength. The scene with Alan Opie's dignified and beautifully detailed Germont certainly raised the level of intensity, with the feeling the veteran singer urging Boyle to greater dramatic heights. She coped heroically with the final act's dramatic requirements and created a genuine sense of Violetta's illness. In fact, this was a noticeable thread running through the opera, we very rarely forgot that Violetta was ill, even in the pastoral moments at the start of Act Two. This was a promising role assumption, with the sense that there will be striking developments to come as Boyle's experience with the role develops.

Lukhanyo Moyake was South Africa's representative in the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, and he has been singing with Cape Town Opera Company since 2010. He has a robust tenor voice and an engagingly puppyish stage presence. His Alfredo was a naive countryman (distinguished by his clothing from the sophisticated party-goers), thankfully lacking the feeling of idiocy which bedevils some performances. His singing had remarkable power, and though there were one or two rough edges and an occasional steely top, this was a finely engaging performance. You feel that the voice is moving towards spinto territory, and Moyake's performance had a wonderful generousness to it, allied to a vibrancy of tone. He is definitely someone I would like to hear more of, and his English was creditably comprehensible.

Alan Opie Catherine Ashmore.jpgLukhanyo Moyake and Alan Opie. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Alan Opie (celebrating his 73rd birthday later this month) was simply remarkable as Germont. There was little feeling of age in the voice and a wonderful sense of the experience behind the performance. This was a finely subtle account of the role, we lacked the determined martinet which has been in evidence in other recent productions, instead Opie's Germont was someone with different expectations the scene with Boyle's Violetta was a fine example of two different views coming together, and each singer showed how, as the scene progressed, their character was forced to re-assess the other. Opie's Germont was relatively understated, but each gesture whether vocal or physical told volumes. This was a fine ensemble performance, one which through craft and experience lifted the general level of the drama.

Heather Shipp Aled Hall.jpg Heather Shipp and Aled Hall. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Heather Shipp made a strong impression as Flora, rising above some unflattering make-up in Act Two and managing to bring out a sense of care for Violetta despite the determinedly 'sexy tart' depiction of the character. The men were strongly cast but rather depicted as types rather than characters. The biggest impression was made by Aled Hall as Gaston thanks to a series of outrageous costumes, but there was good support from Benjamin Bevan as the Baron, Bozidar Smiljanic as the Marquis and Henry Waddington as Doctor Grenvil. Martha Jones gave a powerfully characterised performance as Annina, without ever over-dominating the scene, and I hope to hear more of her.

Benjamin Bevan Claudia Boyle.jpg Benjamin Bevan and Claudia Boyle. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

The chorus did everything required of them, entering into the party hi-jinks with a will and there were no additional dancers for Flora's party scene. Whatever you thought of the production, the chorus performance was a real tour-de-force. The two small Act Two roles, Joseph and the messenger, were provided admirably by chorus members Pablo Strong and David Campbell.

Leo McFall drew a fine-grained performance from the orchestra. Highly fluid with plenty of rubato, McFall also kept things moving and Act Two (the longest of the three acts) flew by without ever seeming pushed. This was a very modern take on the piece, clean and lithe, but one which did not eschew tradition either and drew very fine playing from the orchestra.

Catherine Ashmore Boyle .jpgClaudia Boyle. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Kramer's production ultimately seemed a little too eager, too desperate to please and there were moments when you wanted it to calm down a little. The result is promising, if Kramer is willing to allow the piece to develop, and I certainly feel that as the run progresses the performances from Claudia Boyle and Lukhanyo Moyake will continue to grow and deepen, aided by the remarkably generous performance from Alan Opie.

Robert Hugill

Verdi La Traviata

Violetta - Claudia Boyle, Alfredo - Lukhanyo Moyake, Germont - Alan Opie, Dr Grenvil - Henry Waddington, Viscount Gaston - Aled Hall, Baron Bouphol - Benjamin Bevan, Marquis - BoĹžidar Smiljanic, Flora Bervoix - Heather Shipp, Annina - Martha Jones; director - Daniel Kramer, conductor - Leo McFall, set design - Lizzie Clachan, costume design - Esther Bialas, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera.
English National Opera at the London Coliseum; 17th March 2018.