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Reviews

19 Dec 2019

La traviata at Covent Garden: Bassenz’s triumphant Violetta in Eyre’s timeless production

There is a very good reason why Covent Garden has stuck with Richard Eyre’s 25-year old production of La traviata. Like Zeffirelli’s Tosca, it comes across as timeless whilst being precisely of its time; a quarter of a century has hardly faded its allure, nor dented its narrative clarity. All it really needs is a Violetta to sweep us off our feet, and that we got with Hrachuhi Bassenz.

La traviata, Covent Garden, Tuesday 17th December 2019

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Hrachuhi Bassenz as Violetta

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

Some sopranos in my experience have simply looked as if they are truly stricken by the tuberculosis which will ultimately claim Violetta’s life; but when the mesh curtain rises at the beginning of Act I in this revival, Bassenz is of such striking beauty you might believe she is untouchable to such illness. Her unblemished looks, her simple purity, perhaps stretches the limits of our belief in her frailty – although another way of looking at this particular Violetta is that her willingness to ignore her fate is a determined strength. It’s Bassenz’s completely nuanced performance, the way in which she so beautifully portrays a Violetta who is on a trajectory of decline, from her last throw of the dice to her spiritual transcendence in Act III, which unquestionably suggests this is a singer who is going to let her Violetta, as Dylan Thomas wrote, 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light' (though, of course, she never quite manages that).

La traviata is an opera which is set entirely inside – and, intrinsically, Verdi’s major character’s in the opera are rather internalised because of this. Any outdoor action is principally off stage and is rarely a deviation from the libretto in this production – Alfredo’s voice is simply heard, singing of love, as he walks down the street at the end of Act I, for example. Eyre does insert a series of shadows walking outside the perimeters of Violetta’s bedroom during Act III, though these perhaps allude to her impending death, with their grim reaper like malevolence, rather than any breeziness of people simply walking by.

The lengthy duet in Act II between Violetta and Giorgio Germont is in many ways the dramatic focal point of the opera (‘Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia’ and ‘Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura) – though dramatic doesn’t, or shouldn’t, imply indulgent. This scene can hang fire in many performances and rather did so here. This had less to do with Bassenz’s Violetta and Simon Keenlyside’s superlative Germont and rather more to do with the conductor, Daniel Oren, who lavished details over the score when they weren’t needed and broadened the tempo – which although never challenging his singers – rather tested my patience. With lesser singers, this act would have fallen apart but Keenlyside, in particular, has both magnetic stage presence and a magisterial voice to match.

391 Production image La traviata (C) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore (1).jpg
Photo credit: ROH/Catherine Ashmore.

If there is often a disconnect between opera productions and their librettos, Eyre and his set designer, Bob Crowley, have achieved uncommon lucidity and transparency. There is even an intelligence to this production if the singers are minded to perform in a particular way – which was the case here. Act II, Scene 1 – set in Violetta’s country house outside Paris – very much suggests a life being wound down. Paintings have been removed from the walls and are stacked against the corner of the room; there is a bareness here, a vast table where only one end of it has any apparent use. This is a setting where the focus of existence is entirely concentrated on one side of the stage. The contrast between Scene 2, the party at Flora’s house, couldn’t be more stark. Here Crowley has given us one of the most opulent sets imaginable – a brick-red Romanesque Coliseum which arcs around centre of the stage, beneath the most lavish golden baroque ceiling. The beginning we see in Scene 1 of Violetta’s descent into heartbreak is palpably deafening to the glittering brilliance of Scene 2. This is a vortex of decadence, of table-top dancing and gambling, of matadors and confused sexual identities, and Violetta is all but consumed by it like burnt leaves floating up from the embers of a wild-fire.

Consumed though one might have felt this Violetta had been at the end of Act II, it was the crushing debilitation of her weakness in Act III which appeared most surprising from this soprano. Her vulnerability, and the slow momentum way she approached her final collapse into Alfredo’s arms, just seemed symptomatic of a singer who rather lived this role. Bassenz’s voice could not particularly be called be subtle – this is a large, bel canto kind of instrument, a complete contrast to the Violetta of Ermonela Jaho who sang the role at the beginning of the year. Bassenz is not a fragile singer; this was not a Violetta which was cautious. Those Lohengrin-like opening bars of the Prelude do not reflect a singer who matches that gentle quality in the strings. Rather, this is a true coloratura sound of arresting power. At times, that dominance can be a little too arresting – during the Brindisi she tended to project centre stage, and in her duet with Alfredo (‘Un dì, felice, eterea’) her recovery seemed so absolute you rather wondered how miraculous her triumph over tuberculosis was becoming. But a magnificent ‘Sempre libera’ rather banished thoughts of caring one way or the other.

Bassenz is such a class act it was her Alfredo, Liparit Avetisyan, who rather suffered beside her, however. I think their chemistry was superb, and if the kisses were real, they were prolonged enough to suggest a genuine warmth and believability between these two singers. Avetisyan sometimes sounded stretched to the limits, and there were times where he simply broke the line. But there is a youthfulness to this tenor which doesn’t stretch the imagination – his ‘De’ mei bollenti spiriti’ had all of the urgency of ardour and ebullience it is supposed to convey.

Simon Keenlyside as Giorgio Germont and Liparit Avetisyan as Alfredo Germont.jpg
Simon Keenlyside as Giorgio Germont and Liparit Avetisyan as Alfredo Germont. Photo credit: ROH/Catherine Ashmore.

What was a little unusual about the casting was that both Bassenz and Avetisyan were at their best when singing beside the elder Germont of Simon Keenlyside. His was, to put it in blunt terms, a masterclass. Keenlyside brought a lieder-like kind of clarity to his singing – there was absolutely no strain on the voice whatsoever, a precision to his phrasing which never allowed him to clip the ends of lines, and a level of lustre and tonal warmth which never rose to being loud or overbearing. There is an art to some baritones being able to sound completely audible without becoming hoarse in doing so – and Keenlyside has the art of doing just that. He became the entire lynchpin during Act II – the singer who cradles his son in the most comforting of terms (a supremely well sung ‘Di Provenza il mar’) or in his long duet with Violetta.

Minor roles – and this is an opera where they can seem quite minor besides a Violetta who is in danger of eclipsing everyone else – were well cast. Sarah Pring’s Annina was well sung, even if she sounded haughty rather than sympathetic at times. Stephanie Wake-Edwards rather shone as Flora, a glint and a flash in her eyes that mirrored the confidence of her singing. But when Bassenz’s Violetta was so dominant, in a performance which really did delve very deep at times, one’s focus often shifted away from other singers on stage.

Daniel Oren managed to draw exquisite playing from the orchestra, though I found some of the conducting uneven. The tendency to keep the music moving in Act I and during Act II, Scene 2 was welcome, but Oren relied entirely on his singers to manage the drama of Act II, Scene 1 and Act III because very little of it emerged from the pit. This would certainly never have worked without the exceptional casting we had here.

Eyre’s La traviata probably has several more years left before the Royal Opera would need to think about a new production of it. It’s beautiful to look at, is faithful to Verdi and on an evening like this one can still leave a perfectly memorable impression no matter how many times one may have seen it.

Marc Bridle

Violetta – Hrachuhi Bassenz, Alfredo – Liparit Avetisyan, Giorgio – Simon Keenlyside, Annina – Sara Pring, Flora – Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Baron Douphal – Germán E Alcántara, Doctor Grenvil – Timothy Dawkins, Gaston – Andrés Presno, Marquis D’Obigny – Jeremy White, Giuseppe – Neil Gillespie; Director – Richard Eyre, Conductor – Daniel Oren, Revival Director – Andrew Sinclair, Designer – Bob Crowley, Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman, Movement Director – Jane Gibson,, Chorus of the Royal Opera House (William Spaulding, director), Orchestra of Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Tuesday 17th December 2019.

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