Richard Eyre’s sharply directed and elegantly staged production of Verdi’s La Traviata has become one of the staples of the Royal Opera House repertoire. There have been 150 performances of the production at Covent Garden, and small wonder; with its subtly unobtrusive direction, handsome and evocative set designs, and its willingness to let the music speak for itself, it is the very definition of a production made to endure. Verdi’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas Fils’s tale of the beautiful courtesan who spurns the hollow security of riches to be with the man she loves and is then driven to leave him that he and his family might prosper is ever a box office favourite; the current run takes full advantage of this, featuring two casts and sixteen performances spread from May to July. (If one misses it, worry not; it returns with two fresh casts in January.)
As the gloss of the production’s sumptuous costumes and interiors has faded to familiarity, it has come to achieve most notability as a vehicle for a star soprano. This time around, the reasonably unfamiliar Marina Rebeka assumes the role of high society courtesan Violetta. She was already due to appear later in the run, and now replaces Sonya Yoncheva, who has withdrawn from early performances due to illness. Rebeka performed the role in London in 2010 when she replaced an indisposed Angela Gheorghiu, and she has sung it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Vienna State Opera.
Not having witnessed her previous essay in London, I can only say that Rebeka’s Violetta was something of a revelation on first hearing. She certainly looks the part, tall and statuesque in the production’s lavish period gowns. The timbre of her voice, bright and refined at the top yet infused with warmth in the lower register, is a perfect fit for the role. Her dynamic range is a similarly good match to its tessitura, equally at home in a lithe and exuberant ‘Sempre libera’–featuring the interpolated high E flat–and a despairing ‘Addio del passato’. She sang with intensity and conviction, her abdication heartbreaking when Violetta makes the decision to sacrifice her love for the sake of Alfredo’s sister and future prospects.
Though she convinced as a passionate lover in the first two acts, and one certainly felt for her self-immolation in the second, her illness in the third was less persuasive. She showed great technical control, as she did throughout the evening, in a beautiful ‘Prendi, quest’è l’immagine’, but she sings with such undimmed power that one did not quite buy into her consumption, or indeed that she was anywhere near her death bed. She is a marvellous performer, but the final scene would benefit from more nuance and dramatic variety. The ending proved less moving than it might have been, which is a shame when the performance on the whole was so good. These quibbles aside, Rebeka was a thrilling Violetta, and her portrayal will remain one to watch as it evolves. The run is worth catching for her performance alone.
As the man for whom she sacrifices everything, Spanish tenor Ismael Jordi was a dashing and charismatic Alfredo. He lacked the technical virtuosity of his Violetta, suffering from a few problems with pitch in the first act. Yet he sang with a resounding, golden-hued tone that was, if not robust, always engaging. His Italianate diction was excellent, and he managed to imbue his ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ with the esprit worthy of a Brindisi. ‘Un di felice, eterea’ and ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ were voiced with tender sincerity; his Alfredo was one of impetuous youth and naïve passion, and his uncomprehending despondency when abandoned by Violetta drove home the scene’s poignancy. He and Rebeka were an unusually credible couple, their moments together brimming with intensity.
Italian baritone Franco Vassallo was a resonant Giorgio Germont, kind rather than stentorian and quick to show pity for Violetta. Otherwise, his was a reasonably one-dimensional characterisation of the stand and sing to the audience variety; his portrayal would have benefitted from more dramatic engagement on stage. This was especially pronounced in his scene with this son. Ms. Rebeka brought more dramatic vitality to the stage where left alone, the two Germonts together were less inspired and could have interacted to stronger effect. Mr. Vassallo did provide a longingly tender ‘Di Provenza il mar’ infused with all the beauty of the dream of home.
As usual for Covent Garden, smaller roles were well taken. Pamela Helen Stephen was a sympathetic Annina, James Platt a suavely voiced Doctor Grenvil, and Angelica Voje a charming Flora. Samuel Dale Johnson was forbidding if nondescript as Baron Douphol, and Jihoon Kim impressed as always as the Marquis D’Obigny.
Eyre’s production, revived here by Andrew Sinclair, still brims with life to match the decadent gilt interiors and abundant champagne. The claustrophobic society scenes in acts one and two still flourish in red and gold hues redolent of sunset, the Venus ice sculpture still wheeled out to greet Violetta’s guests in reflected golden light. One does begin to wish for fresher ideas and a more pronounced directorial hand; in addition to the Germonts, the chorus—resounding as always and on sparkling form in both party scenes—would also benefit from some more focused characterisation and direction on stage. Yet as a pure showpiece for Verdi’s drama and Bob Crowley’s luxurious set it still works well, and will doubtless continue to draw in crowds for a while longer yet.
Conductor Marc Minkowski offered an almost Mozartian account of Verdi’s score, his background leading chamber orchestras borne out by his sharp attention to detail and intuitive support of his singers. Though he offered some unusually drawn out tempi in places—the rather anaemic overture, a haunting ‘Ah, fors’è lui’, the protracted opening of the third act—on the whole the orchestra was led with swiftness and fire. With the exception of the third act, where the drama faltered and the drama failed to move, the evening passed seamlessly.
Ms. Yoncheva assumes the title role later in the run, and Placido Domingo returns to London to make a couple of performances as Germont père. Star tenors (baritones?) aside, the run is worth catching for the dynamic conducting and Ms. Rebeka’s fine Violetta; if the final act develops during the run to achieve a greater level of poignancy, it will be a fine production indeed.
John E. de Wald