Peter Konwitschny’s 2013 Traviata returns to the Coliseum stage, the only change a new Violetta. The production is inventive and original, and certainly deserving of a second run. By the standards of German Regie it’s tame, but for a Traviata it is radical indeed. Konwitschny does away with the settings, and plays down the plot, the better to focus on psychology and emotion. The results are raw and immediate, with stark imagery that lives long in the memory. Musical standards are high, but there is some curious voice casting, several roles cast against type and duets and ensembles that fail to blend. But it is a confident and original show, and far preferable to yet another frilly dresses and ornate chandeliers spectacle.

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Bar a few props, a chair and a pile of books, the set consists entirely of just a series of red curtains – an abstract but often menacing setting. It often feels like a dream world, or like the hallucination sequences in Twin Peaks. There is also a strong Freudian element, not least from the vaginal connotations as the curtains part centre stage (or is that just me?). The four acts (or scenes as the programme describes them) run together without an interval, trapping us in this uncompromising setting for the opera’s entire two-hour duration. And Violetta’s decline is played out graphically in the gradual dismantling of the array. The curtains are all torn down in the third scene, and, in a poignant duet in the fourth, Violetta and Alfredo mime drawing them back to their original positions. There is also a lot of action taking place in the auditorium, with Alfredo even moving along the rows in the stalls and obliging everybody to shift their knees. While that was ok in act 2, Violetta on the stage singing to Alfredo in the auditorium, it was taken to an absurd extreme in act 4, where Germont, the doctor and Annina made their entrance into the auditorium and remained there for the entirety of their ensemble. A nice idea, but taken a bit far.

Konwitschny’s other big idea is to reimagine the relationship between the Violetta and Alfredo, such that Violetta is the strong and moral character and Alfredo is the weak and impressionable one. Violetta is always a powfurl and confident presence, until she succumbs to her illness in the last act, her pale continence there achieved by projecting a bleached white light on her from above. Alfredo, in contrast, is presented as a bookworm, a timid character in cardigan and specs.

All of which only really matters for the short episodes in which Konwitschny is required to tell the story. He relies heavily on the chorus: their presence or absence is the only real difference between the social settings in the city and the quiet country retreat. They become living props. Singing props too of course, and the ENO Chorus this evening was on excellent form – they have had a good few days, with their equally fine contribution to Mastersingers on Saturday.

Conductor Roland Böer led a sensitive and dramatically engaged musical reading, not as overtly emotive as the staging, but none the worse for that. Orchestra excellent throughout.

Strong voices all round, but with some curious casting. The one new addition, Elizabeth Zharoff as Violetta, has a powerful and pure voice. But it is quite angular and can be tiring on the ear. Perhaps she was cast to fulfil Konwitschny’s idea of Violetta as a strong, independent woman. She can certainly act the part, and has no trouble holding the stage. Ben Johnson also has a distinctive and impressive voice, but his has a more burnished hue– not to a fault, he’s fabulous in Ed Gardner’s recent Szymanowski recordings – but not necessarily the sound to complement Zharoff.

The finest vocal performance of the evening was from Anthony Michaels-Moore as Germont. He’s a proper Verdi baritone, effortlessly rich of tone and always emotive. Konwitschny pulls off another interpretive sleight in act 2, bringing on Germont’s daughter as a mute role (two actors are credited: Aven Alqadhi and Emily Speed). She’s a young girl, barely into her teens, which doesn’t make much sense to the story, but Michaels-Moore manages to introduce her convincingly, and father and daughter make for up something of a double act throughout the second scene.

After the spectacle of ENO’s Mastersingers, which opened on Saturday, this Traviata seemed a more modest offering all round. But both are well worth seeing. With English National Opera currently on the defensive, it is worth highlighting both as prime examples of what the company does so well: inventive and ambitious productions that break the mould, and that you couldn’t imagine ever seeing staged by the company’s rival down the road.

4 stars

Gavin Dixon

(Photo : Tristram Kenton from the 2013 production – the 2015 pictures will be updated shortly)

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