Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Macbeth in Lyon

A revival of the Opéra de Lyon’s 2012 Occupy Wall St. production of Verdi’s 1865 Macbeth, transforming naive commentary into strange irony, some high art included.

Barber of Seville Is Fun in Tucson

On March 4, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Tucson. Allen Moyer designed the bright and happy scenery for performances at Minnesota Opera,

Moody, Mysterious Morel

Long Beach Opera often takes willing audiences on an unexpected journey and such is undeniably the case with its fascinating traversal of The Invention of Morel.

Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

Katie Hawks makes quite a claim for Handel’s Acis and Galatea when, in her programme article, she describes it as the composer’s ‘most perfect work’. Surely, one might feel, this is a somewhat hyperbolic evaluation of a 90-minute pastoral masque, or serenade, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has its origins in a private entertainment?

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

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.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.



Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera]
12 Feb 2015

La Traviata, ENO

English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata had many elements in common with the production’s original outing in 2013 (The production was a co-production with Opera Graz, where it had debuted in 2011).

La Traviata, ENO

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta

Photos by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera


Ben Johnson and Anthony Michaels Moore repeated their performances as Alfredo and Giorgio Germont and the smaller cast members were the same. The production was revived by Mika Blauensteiner who was the assistant director on the original production. The biggest changes were that the conductor was now Roland Böer, and the title role was sung by the American soprano Elizabeth Zharoff.

Konwitschny’s view of the opera is stripped down, anti-romantic and not a little dystopic. The opera is cut so that it plays for just under two hours, without an interval. The biggest loss is the party entertainment in Act 2, scene 2, but throughout Konwitschny has tightened the focus of the work so that Violetta and Alfredo are even more the focus of attention. The advantage of losing the intervals is the concentration of focus, and the way the ends of scenes bled into the next notably the prone party guests from act two, scene two, crawling away from Violetta at the opening of act three.

And the whole piece plays out against sets of red curtains, effectively this opera is set in the theatre. As the action progresses, curtains are opened so that more of upstage is revealed, till the very end when on a bare stage Elizabeth Zharoff’s Violetta walked through the final curtain (an elegant metaphor, or a corny gag depending on your point of view). There are no props beyond a chair and pile of books, no stage setting, no frippery, no big frocks. The focus is on Violetta, and Zharoff was on-stage virtually the whole time.

ENO La traviata 2015, Ben Johnson (c) Donald Cooper.pngBen Johnson as Alfredo

Konwitschny’s Violetta is a woman who seems to be acting all the time. Only at the very end does she take her wig off (a different one in each scene) to reveal her natural hair; her treatment by the Doctor (Martin Lamb) seems to involve considerable amounts of drugs &mdash: is she ill, or does she have a serious habit? She dies alone, on-stage, with the remaining cast members Anthony Michaels Moore, Martin Lamb, Valerie Reed (Annina) and Ben Johnson in the auditorium. So the focus is very much on the singer. In the 2013 production, Corinne Winters made a coruscating impression as Violetta, and if Zharoff did not quite match those memories she certainly took control of the role and blasted us with emotion.

Zharoff has a surprising sounding voice. Looking through her resume she sings lyric roles with quite a bit of coloratura, offering Violetta, Marguerite (Faust), Pamina, and Constanze. But in the theatre her voice creates a big, vibrant impression partly because she has a significant and constant vibrato. I have to confess that I rather prefer a cleaner voice in this repertoire, but Zharoff made it work. She was adept at thinning her voice out at the top and producing a fragility which was essential to her portrayal. The fioriture in act one’s Sempre libera were confidently done, she was expressive and there was never a sense of having to simply ‘get through’ the act. But with such a vibrato laden tone, inevitably the passagework does get occluded somewhat. This was a performance which grew. I felt that Zharoff was still finding her feet in act one, and there were tuning problems which will disappear. Dite alla giovine was beautifully crafted, but it was the final act which really moved, On a bare stage, with the action focussed on Violetta alone, Zharoff really held the stage and we appreciated the full emotional depth of her high-wattage account of the role.

Ben Johnson’s voice seems to have developed an even finer expressive sheen to it than before, this was one of the most beautifully crafted accounts of the role of Alfredo that I have heard. To a certain extent the timbre was at odds with the visual image, of the cardigan wearing nerd. But the very self-absorbed nature of this Alfredo certainly gets over some of the plots more ridiculous corners, you could well believe Ben Johnson’s Alfredo not noticing obvious things like Violetta selling up. My emphasis on the beauty of timbre should not blind you to the emotional depth of Johnson’s performance too. At the moment you are still aware of Johnson’s careful control, you never felt he was in danger of letting go the way the greatest exponents of this role have done. But Johnson’s achievement as young artist is superb and I look forward to hearing more of him in this repertoire (he will be singing Carlo in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco at this year’s Buxton Festival).

ENO La traviata 2015, Matthew Hargreaves, Elizabeth Zharoff, Ben Johnson (c) Donald Cooper.pngMatthew Hargreaves as the Baron, Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta, and Ben Johnson as Alfredo

Anthony Michaels Moore offered one of the most beautifully sung accounts of the role of Giorgio Germont that I have ever heard. Ramrod stiff of back, and clearly unable to communicate properly with his children, this was less of an ogre than a highly inhibited man. Sometimes I wished for a performance that was more rough-hewn, but listening to Michaels Moore’s sense of control and intelligent understanding of Verdi’s vocal line was a joy in itself. For much of his scene with Zharoff in act two, I had my eyes closed. Konwitschny brings Giorgio on with a young girl, the daughter to whom Giorgio refers, and too often during the Violetta/Giorgio duet it was the young girl who was the focus of attention. I felt I was being manipulated and did not like it. This is particularly true when, after getting worked up Giorgio strikes the girl. An act which leads directly to Violetta’s giving an and Dite all giovine, but surely a falsification of the emotional core of the scene.

The smaller characters were all strongly etched, even through the cuts. Matthew Hargreaves made a strong Baron and very much a nasty piece of work, Clare Presland was a party-girl Flora and Valerie Reid was a capable and sympathetic Annina.

Seeing the production again, it struck me how hard edged everything is. None of the subsidiary characters are likeable and the party scenes are positively toxic, why would anyone put up with these friends. They make Ben Johnson’s nerdish and inhibited Alfredo look positively normal. What also struck me this time was the sense of being manipulated; as the production has become more familiar I could sense more the way Konwitschny was arranging things so that we had to react in a certain way.

The production was sung in Martin Fitzpatrick’s modern sounding translation, and diction was excellent.

Conductor Roland Böer is music director of Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte in Montepulciano. He conducted a finely controlled account of the score. His tempi were on the moderate to fast side, and this was very modern Verdi without any of the sort of indulgence we might sometimes expect. Böer did allow room for the singers, and his tempi were not overly rigid, but his relaxations and rubatos were relatively small scale. He avoided being overly brisk, but I did want him to linger a little more, to love the music a bit more. That said, he drew a very finely expressive performance from the orchestra with some lovely spun out lines.

This is not a neutral production of the opera (but then no production is), and it certainly explores the sorts of contemporary issues which interested Verdi. The composer wanted La Traviata to be a contemporary opera, something that can get lost in a big frock production. Konwitschny’s approach raises all sorts of issues about what it is to be true to the composer’s intentions. But he places a lot of responsibility on his cast and here, the revival cast were on fine form and created a thrilling evening of musical theatre that left you going home wondering and thoughtful (as well as humming Sempre libera).

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Violetta: Elizabeth Zharoff, Alfredo: Ben Johnson, Giorgio: Anthony Michaels Moore, Flora: Clare Presland, Gason: Paul Hopwood, Baron: Mathew Hargreaves, Marquis: Charles Johnson, Doctor: Martin Lamb, Annina: Valerie Reed, Servant: David Newman, Messenger: Paul Sheehan, Girl: Aven Alqahdi/Emily Speed. Director: Peter Konwitschny, Revival Director: Mika Blauensteiner, Designer: Johannes Leiacker, Lighting designer: Joachim Klein, Translation: Martin Fitzpatrick. Conductor: Roland Böer. English National Opera, London Coliseum, 2nd February 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):