Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème

If opera can sometimes seem unyieldingly conservative, even reactionary, it made quite the change to spend an evening hearing and seeing something which was so radically done.

A refined Acis and Galatea at Cadogan Hall

The first performance of Handel's two-act Acis and Galatea - variously described as a masque, serenata, pastoral or ‘little opera’ - took place in the summer of 1718 at Cannons, the elegant residence of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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):