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La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi – A Revival Worth Catching.
It’s the 25th anniversary of Richard Eyre’s landmark production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and so with the latest revival having just opened at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, we were delighted to be asked to review. La Traviata has one of the great operatic storylines encompassing sex, death, grand passion, family honour and finally tragedy and combined with Verdi’s powerful melodies (you’ll know them even if you think you don’t) it makes a perfect opera for a novice to the art form. La Traviata marks the end of the vocal-led ‘Bel Canto’ period in opera and moves towards a greater depth of characterisation, narrative realism and contemporary settings in a way that would have been novel for contemporary audiences but makes it accessible to all now.
Based on the true story of Marie Duplessis, the opera is adapted from Alexander Dumas the younger’s 1852 play La Dame aux Camélias with Verdi’s operatic version receiving its premiere in 1853 at Venice’s La Fenice opera house. As a girl, Duplessis had been sold to a paedophile by her father when just 13. She ended up as one of France’s greatest ‘grandes horizontales’, with lovers including writers such as Dumas himself, the composer Franz Liszt and several aristocrats. The narrative of the opera traces the relationship of a beautiful courtesan called Violetta with a bourgeois if inexperienced young man, of good family, called Alfredo who has admired her from afar. With two Armenian singers as the leads in Hrachuhi Bassenz as Violetta and tenor Lipsrit Avetisyan as Alfredo, this production has two top-notch and well-matched voices and there is a tangible sympathy between them that is both musical and dramatic. They meet at a party at Violetta’s salon where Alfredo sings the famous drinking song waltz (known as a brindisi) “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (Let’s drink from the joyful cups). Tavetisyan as Alfredo has a priggish youthful naivety that is both dramatically satisfying as well as suiting his voice and declares his love to the less certain Violetta in the gorgeous romantic duet Un dì, felice, eterea – “One day, happy, ethereal”.
Act 2 opens in Violetta’s country house outside Paris where the couple are now living. With vertiginous duck-egg blue walls and French doors and with paintings scattered around, Bob Crowley’s set suggests both calm and impermanence, contrasting with the rich golden hues and opulence of Violetta’s Paris apartment. Alfredo’s crotchety father Giorgio, convincingly acted and stolidly sung by ROH veteran Simon Keenlyside, visits and convinces the sickly Violetta to give up Alfredo as the immorality of their relationship is threatening to derail the engagement of his daughter – “Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia” (Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter). Violetta finally relents with Bassenz showing emotional and technical mastery in the duet “Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura” (Tell the young girl, so beautiful and pure), earning Giorgio’s admiration in the process.
On his return, Bassenz as Violetta sings to Alfredo “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’ io t’amo – (Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you) showing a real tenderness before returning to Paris to take up with an old lover. After various shenanigans including some splendid dancing matadors and an off-stage duel, we get to the final act. Opening with the same plangent high strings that open the overture, sensitively managed by conductor Daniel Oren, we see that Violetta is dying, waiting for a final reconciliation with Alfredo and Giorgio who eventually arrive.
Avetisyan as Alfredo captures the romantic fantasy of his suggestion that the tragic lovers leave Paris with a real delicacy of feeling– “Violetta: Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo” (We will leave Paris, O beloved). But Violetta knows her time is up – “o Gran Dio!…morir sì giovane” (Great God!…to die so young) and the inevitable happens. With the resources of the Royal Opera behind it, this is Grand Opera at its finest. The opulence of Covent Garden, Verdi’s melodies propelling the emotion at you with enough force to break down even the hardest of hearts, the grandeur of the sets and costumes and some terrific and dramatically intelligent singing all coalesce to create an evening that even if you are nervous of opera, you should experience.
Royal Opera House
Bow Street, London,
From December 17, 2019 to March 23, 2020
For other Royal Opera House productions currently showing please check our review of Otello and of the Royal Ballet’s Coppelia
For more Christmas 2019 options, please see our summary of Christmas shows for 2019/2020