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22 Nov 2018

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

Welsh National Opera’s La traviata, at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Kang Wang (Alfredo) and Linda Richardson (Violetta)

Photo credit: Betina Skovbro

 

McVicar seems to have taken a leaf out of T.S. Eliot’s book: ‘say that the end precedes the beginning,/ And the end and the beginning were always there/ Before the beginning and after the end.’ For, during the overture we gaze at designer Tanya McCallin’s shrouded room, its dark, pendulous drapes countered by frail white coverings, shadows the only inhabitants illuminated by lighting designer Jennifer Tipton (lighting realised on tour by Benjamin Naylor). A cloaked figure appears, pauses in melancholy reflection, then is carried by ponderous steps the length of the fore-stage, head bent, to the accompaniment of fragile strings, so light as to suggest a chamber-like intimacy which the visual scene denies.

Before we know it, the room has gone, swept aside by a falling front curtain and the cellos’ melodic gaiety (although on this occasion at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre the section sang less as a gleeful coterie and more as individual revellers), as we swing back into the past and into the insalubrious fin-de-siècle salons of the French capital where the courtesans tease and tussle, frothing their skirts and spreading the legs, amongst the bustled and bow-tied bourgeoisie. Think John Singer Sargent meets Toulouse Lautrec.

The dining table and grand piano totter with sparkling glasses, piled plates and gustatory pleasures. It’s clear as they gather eagerly and sway to a buoyant lilt that during the brindisi the guests are truly enjoying themselves. But, they are literally walking on Violetta’s grave: the floor is a black-marble slab, etched with the dates that mark La traviata’s beginning and end. When Alfredo subsequently takes Violetta in his arms and tells her she must give up a life that will kill her the proleptic irony is disturbing.

Philip Lloyd Evans Marquis d Obginy Rebecca Afonwy Jones Flora and WNO Chorus Photo credit Betina Skovbro.jpg Philip Lloyd Evans (Marquis d’Obginy), Rebecca Afonwy-Jones (Flora) and WNO Chorus. Photo credit: Betina Skovbro.

If the choral crowd are sometimes a little static - though hearty of voice - then individuals are brought to the fore. James Cleverton’s resounding Baron Douphol watches the nascent courtship from the front of the stage isolated from the other carousers’ carnality and excess by his jealousy and anger. Sian Meinir’s Annina hovers watchfully; Flora’s indigo-blue frock gleams as richly as Rebecca Afonwy-Jones mezzo-soprano and as brightly as her smile.

Then, suddenly Violetta and Alfredo find themselves alone; the viewer is disorientated by the change of perspective, sucked into their intimacy. Kang Wang’s evening-dress looks a little on the large size but his voice is stylish and secure, if lacking in a really Italianate warmth and ring at the top. Anush Hovhannisyan is taking the role of Violetta in the two Southampton performances; her soprano perhaps does not have the fullness of tone and nuance of colour to really engage our sympathies but the Armenian soprano has undeniable theatrical presence, and she worked hard to communicate Violetta’s determination and courage, as well as to intimate her frailty - no easy task when vocally the singer in the role must be so robust and sparkling. Hovhannisyan may sometimes have only found a secure line upon the repetition of a vocal phrase, but she has a lovely way of withdrawing the note at the top to convey fragility and femininity - and who would begrudge her repetition of this winning gesture.

Kang Wang Alfredo Photo-credit Betina Skovbro.jpgKang Wang (Alfredo). Photo credit: Betina Skovbro.

Act 2 finds Violetta prone on her bed, the stage divided by a the curving hoops of a half-lowered curtain revealing first the lovers’ bedroom, the shadows looming like ghosts, and then, with a balletic swish, the brightly lit, gracious ante-room in which Violetta awaits her visitors. If Act 2 is fired by a greater intensity and truly compelling dramatic momentum, then this is in no small part due to Roland Wood’s gripping Giorgio Germont. Wood’s baritone imposes itself with wonderfully supercilious smoothness and colour, matching the contemptuous condescension of his gestures - the lifting of frilled layer of Violetta’s dress with his cane, as he sneers about the extravagance of life is the apex of arrogance. Wood’s encounters first with Violetta and then with his son in this Act are both menacing and moving. His iron-rod back, as he refuses to take the open-hearted Violetta in his arms, as a daughter, is chilling.

Alfredo and Roland Wood Giorgio Germont Betina Skovbro.jpgKang Wang (Alfredo) and Roland Wood (Giorgio Germont). Photo credit: Betina Skovbro.

Back in Paris, the excitement at Alfredo’s luck at cards is matched by the exuberance of the gypsy dancers’ displays; and the entertainment cleverly integrates the themes of class and money, as Philip Lloyd-Evans’ oily Marquis d’Obigny shoves some crumpled louis down the cleavage of one of the can-can girls, and a male ‘matador’ scrabbles on the floor for the revellers’ carelessly thrown loose notes. Later there is a terrible desperation and degradation when Alfredo (inelegant in out-sized suit) showers his gambling profits at the horrified over the salon marble, insulting and intimidating Violetta, who shrinks under his scornful, spiteful retort that he has now repaid his debts. Again, some of choral blocking is a little staid: when towards end of chorus, Flora ventures forward to comfort Violetta and is restrained by the Marquis, one wishes that McVicar had integrated more such telling details. Similarly at the close of the scene, the principals too are static, strung out along the front of stage - a little disengaging in their spatial isolation and stillness, with Pere Germont seated exhaustedly stage-right, Alfredo slumped on floor centre-stage, and Violetta standing, just, stage-left.

WNO Dancers and WNO Chorus Photo credit Betina Skovbro.jpg WNO Dancers and WNO Chorus. Photo credit: Betina Skovbro.

Hovhannisyan comes into her own in the last Act much of which she delivers while horizontal on bed or floor, but with dramatic magnetism and vocal focus, her opening agonises accompanied with beautifully shaped violin accompaniment. Violetta’s fervent grasping, with faux optimism, at the arm of Martin Lloyd’s pragmatic Grencil recalls the superficiality of her earlier merriments. Past and present are fusing: when, Germont arrives to embrace her as a daughter, Violetta’s cry, “It is too late!”, is visually reinforced by the terrible funereal darkness and erasure of colour and warmth - even the meagre fire is extinguished, as Violetta’s heart essays its final flickers.

Conductor James Southall had kept a tight rein on the Welsh National Opera Orchestra up until this point, taking care that in the Mayflower ‘barn’ they did not overwhelm the singers. But, now the rat-a-tat of trombones was a spine-curdling knock of Death. One could only hope that T.S. Eliot was right when he professed that ‘to make an end is to make a beginning./ The end is where we start from.’

Claire Seymour

Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta - Anush Hovhannisyan, Alfredo - Kang Wang, Germont - Roland Wood, Flora - Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Baron Douphol - James Cleverton, Marquis d’Obigny - Philip Lloyd-Evans, Annina - Sian Meinir, Doctor Grenvil - Martin Lloyd, Gaston - Howard Kirk, The Messenger - George Newton-Fitzgerald, Flora’s Servant - Laurence Cole, Dancers/Actors (Colm Seery, Darío Sanz Yagüe, Ashley Bain, Mori Bonet, Lucy Burns, María Comes Sampredo, Lauren Wilson; Director - David McVicar (revival director - Sarah Crisp), Conductor - James Southall, Designer - Tanya McCallin, Lighting Designer - Jennifer Tipton (realised on tour by Benjamin Naylor), Choreographer - Andrew George, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera.

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton; Wednesday 21st November 2018.

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