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Friday 8 February 2013

Peter Konwitschny's La Traviata at ENO


Visually, this is one of the most striking productions I've ever seen. It opens on opulent red theatre curtains which are drawn aside to reveal - more red theatre curtains. The entire set is comprised of layers of curtains, and a single chair. But all is not what it seems - first we realise that it is only beautiful lighting that created the grandiose beauty of the opening image - the curtains are not made of velvet but rather a flimsy see-through fabric. As we progress through Act I, they constantly billow forward and we observe that they are flimsier still than we imagined when we see that they have vertical black lines that create a trompe-l'œil effect. Later, in Act II, the back drop curtain is lit only from the side making it look ragged and soiled, and at the end of the act when everything goes wrong for Violetta the curtains collapse one by one and are dragged off stage by the crawling chorus. For the final scene the stage is empty save for an unilluminated black curtain at the back of the stage and the debris of the previous night's party. Violetta doesn't die on stage but merely wanders out of her spotlight into the dark oblivion of the curtain.

Werner Kmetitsch, Oper Graz
This is not Corinne Winters!
Violetta's dress in Act I mirrors the curtains and in colour and trompe-l'œil effect too - clearly the curtains are a metaphor for her descent but they also signify that her world is a theatre. Twice Germont and Alfredo appear in the stalls audience observing her with the rest of us, most tellingly in the final scene where Violetta is alone in her oversized spotlight - although it created a lot of fuss and distraction in the real audience, Konwitschny is underlining not just her lonelyness in death, but that even her death is a performance, watched from a distance by those closest too her. She shares no genuine intimacy with Alfredo even when they're happy (though this may have been due to poor acting). Alfredo is a nerdy loser, awkwardly at odds with the hedonism of society, but he is completely unable to see clearly any aspect of his own situation or Violetta's, but he offers an escape for Violetta and she takes it. Germont is overbearing and sentimental, though not as cruel as he might have been portrayed. Violetta's objectification reaches an apogee in Act II scene II when Alfredo and the Barone gamble for the right her, talking about her to each other when she's literally under their noses, throwing their cards down on her broken body. The scene is cut, and we go to the final scene which is played out conventionally until the end: Alfredo runs away into the audience when Violetta's suggests that he should find another woman and be happy.

Most of the action that I haven't mentioned is quite conventionally staged in terms of character interactions so no one need fear that they won't understand or that this production is too concept driven to be recognisable as La Traviata. Lots of the novel ideas here I have seen before in other productions - Germont dragging along the talked about younger sister (though here she is disturbingly young for marriage), Violetta injecting some unknown substance after Alfredo says you should look after yourself (though here it's administered by the doctor), and various Brechtian tropes that seem incongruous and without referent in the milieu of the ENO in 2013.

The singing is generally decent. Corinne Winters makes a very solid stab at the famously impossible vocal demands of the role of Violetta and her coloratura at the end of Act I was surprisingly nimble. She inserts the unwritten Eb with confidence. The other two acts seem more comfortable still and she whips out a very natty trick of very quickly and smoothly fining down her tone from forte to pianissimo quite a few times. There's not much variation in the vocal colour though, and whether happy or sad, partying or dying, the timbre basically sounds the same. The direction is very physically demanding, but it causes her to over-act, and I wonder whether the staging was too abstract to feel fully engaged with the character. Or perhaps unrealistic "theatrical" acting is what Konwitschny was asking for as part of the concept, but it felt a bit alienating and I wasn't much moved by any aspect of anyone's performance. This is a chilly version of the opera, but presumably we're meant to feel something...

Ben Johnson's Alfredo is very awkward and self absorbed, again devoid of genuine feeling - all my analysis above of the opera was based on acting that was clearly meant to demonstrate these attitudes rather than really embody them. As I say I can't be sure that this wasn't Konwitschny's intention as I haven't seen his other productions. Anthony Michaels-Moore Germont is played along similar lines. Vocally both men are very good without being outstanding - very secure, and solid throughout their ranges, but also a little monochromatic.

Michael Hofstetter conducts too much of the score as if we're listening to a musical box, and the moments of high drama fail to register as serious events. This might have been intentional to match the staging's artificiality and emotional reserve of course - I found myself questioning all these things all the time, but ultimately I have to trust my emotions and say that I wasn't that stirred musically this evening. I would say that the main strength of this production is visual, and if you can get past the lack of crinolines and fussy décor, it is a rather simply and unsentimentally told version of La Traviata. I'm not sure that sentimentality doesn't make up a large part of the appeal of La Traviata usually, but it's interesting to see what's left when that aspect is stripped away. Well worth seeing.

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