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Reviews

23 Jan 2019

Ermonela Jaho is an emotively powerful Violetta in ROH's La traviata

Perhaps it was the ‘Blue Monday’ effect, but the first Act of this revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata seemed strangely ‘consumptive’, its energy dissipating, its ‘breathing’ rather laboured.

La traviata, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Charles Castronovo as Alfredo Germont and Ermonela Jaho as Violetta Valéry

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

Conductor Antonello Manacorda didn’t inject much life or spirit into the overture: uncharacteristically, the ROH Orchestra seemed drained of colour, the cellos neither bloomed nor ached, and tempi were sluggish. The lacklustre opening certainly wasn’t a case of ‘aging’. Eyre’s production may be 25-years-old but it’s still handsome in conception and design, Bob Crowley’s sets sculpting gracious spaces.

Violetta’s Parisian apartment has a stylish grandeur which brings to mind the art deco entrance hall at Eltham Palace - the overarching dome, through which light seems to burst, highlighting the beautiful veneer and marquetry. Subsequently, the Act 2 rural retreat exudes classy minimalism and artistic taste, while the crimson is still pulsing in the gambling scene, voluptuously lit by Jean Kalman who bathes his frolicking gypsy girls and strutting matadors in rich hues of complementary red and green. Then, finally, the vivacity is blanched and bleached for the death scene, which takes place in a grey, bare room dominated by a huge slanting mirror, its glass blackened and rotting - a photo negative of Violetta’s inner physical decline.

These are images and spaces which conjure passion, excitement and fear. And, given the strong cast assembled it was a surprise that there were few genuine on-stage emotional frissons in Act 1. There was some fine singing but even the redoubtable ROH Chorus, while as vocally secure as always, seemed rather staid and sturdy. Indeed, though on previous occasions I’ve not been troubled by the way the set often pushes the cast and Chorus forwards to the fore-stage, throughout this performance there seemed to be a disappointing predominance of stand-and-sing non-choreography.

Eyre’s production has had countless revivals with numerous divas in the title role. The Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho first stepped into Violetta’s shoes at Covent Garden when she deputised at short notice for an indisposed Anna Netrebko in 2008, and she returned to the role here in 2010 and 2012. Internationally, Violetta Valéry has become one of her most successful roles. But, in Act 1 Jaho and Charles Castronovo - who was Jaho’s Alfredo in Paris last autumn - seemed to be singing ‘at’ rather than ‘to’ each other: there was more emotional spark from the central ice sculpture around which the revellers swirled.

Jaho as Violetta.jpg Ermonela Jaho (Violetta). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

I wondered if I’d simply seen too many Traviatas of late, after performances by Opera Holland Park , the Glyndebourne Tour and Welsh National Opera in the last few months. But, I think my initial disenchantment has a different root. Jaho is a superb dramatic communicator, but she lacks the sort of lyric sumptuousness that can convince us of Violetta’s captivating allure - such as is required in ‘Ah, fors’ è lui’ and ‘Sempre libera’, which Jaho approached somewhat tentatively. Conversely, the more infirm and fractured Violetta becomes, the more credible is Jaho’s communication of physical and mental vulnerability through vocal slenderness - her frailty, of body and utterance, is compelling. We might expect a singer to use colour and muscular strength to shape a line, phrasing and projecting to convey character; Jaho’s expressive impact seems to be achieved by the inverse. Her tone is rather monochrome, but she can withdraw her soprano until it is the merest whisper - the scant thread which holds Violetta in this world, as the afterlife beckons. And, it is breathtakingly beautiful and touching at times, if occasionally repetitive.

That said, Violetta’s Act 3 demise was heart-breaking. Every tremor, every brief flame, was piercingly emotive. If her Act 2 exchanges with Alfredo’s father were less successful, than that is partly owing to Igor Golovatenko’s inflexible phrasing and overly pressing sound: the tone was strong and true, but it was unwaveringly loud, and this Giorgio Germont came across as a heartless patriarch whose condescension and cruelty - his iron-rod back, and iron-hard delivery - simply overwhelmed Jaho’s brittle delicacy. Golovatenko was more dramatically effective in his subsequent exchanges with Castronovo. And the latter, if he seemed to be lacking the party spirit in the Act 1 brindisi, was chillingly vicious in his humiliation of Violetta in the gambling scene, conveying a truly hurting heart battling with spitefulness.

Alfredo, Violetta, Annina, Doctor Grenvil (c) Ashmore.jpg Charles Castronovo (Alfredo), Ermonela Jaho (Violetta), Catherine Carby (Annina), Simon Shibambu (Doctor Grenvil). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Overall, though, this was effectively a one-woman show. There were consistent, well-considered performances from Catherine Carby as Annina, and Simon Shibambu as Doctor Grenvil. And, the two Jette Parker Young Artists also impressed: Aigul Akhmetshina was a vivacious Flora, while Germán E. Alcántara showed confidence and presence as Baron Douphol.

But, it was Jaho who, in Acts 2 and 3 at least, commanded and demanded our attention. If a wrenching portrait of physical and psychological demise is what you’re after, this is a Traviata for you. There are, however, two casts for this production , and Angel Blue and Plácido Domingo may throw some different ingredients into the mix.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta Valéry - Ermonela Jaho, Alfredo Germont - Charles Castronovo, Giorgio Germont - Igor Golovatenko, Annina - Catherine Carby, Flora Bervoix - Aigul Akhmetshina, Baron Douphol - Germán E Alcántara, Doctor Grenvil - Simon Shibambu, Gastone de Letorières - Thomas Atkins, Marquis D'Obigny - Jeremy White, Giuseppe - Neil Gillespie, Messenger - Dominic Barrand, Servant - Jonathan Coad; Director - Richard Eyre, Revival director - Andrew Sinclair, Conductor - Antonello Manacorda, Designer - Bob Crowley, Lighting designer - Jean Kalman, Director of movement - Jane Gibson, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 21st January 2019.

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