Royal Opera House (venue)
24 January 2019 (released)
26 January 2019
The noble prostitute is no longer a shocking idea. Not that Violetta Valery, heroine of La Traviata was in any sense a common prostitute. She was what is more wittily know as une grande horizontale or more gracefully as the love object of the very rich or the very aristocratic or, occasionally, the fairly rich and very romantic who is prepared to ruin himself for her favours. That is the tragedy of the story: Alfredo Germont, a young bourgeois, falls in love with a courtesan. He is prepared to ruin himself but his father has other ideas. Love must not be allowed to conquer all.
Verdi based his story on La Dame aux Camelias, a novel by Alexandre Dumas Fils, published in 1848 and in 1852 presented as a play on the Paris stage. The heroine here was called Marguerite Gautier and was inspired by Dumas's own eleven month love affair with the most famous courtesan of the time, Marie Deplessis who died of consumption as Violetta does. Marie, in her turn, had changed her name from Rose Alphonsine Plessis when she left behind her abusive childhood and city street life for high society.
So the self-sacrificing, almost saintly, Violetta we see renouncing her beloved Alfredo and dying slowly, has been created from the real cosmopolitan Paris of the middle nineteenth century. Anyone who is captivated by her history beyond the beauty of the music and the singing should read Dumas's novel - he was the son of the Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte-Cristo and was possibly another of Marie's lovers. In the novel the business-like approach to sex is just as obvious as the romantic. It was a shock for wider society to see the prostitute elevated to heroine and Verdi had a predictably difficult time with the censors.
The Royal Opera House has been presenting the staging of La Traviata, by Richard Eyre with designer Bob Crowley, at least once a year since 1994. (In 1857 the opera was produced in English under the not very catchy title of The Blighted One.) Happily, Eyre's production shows no signs of aging. The famous dance scenes, the gambling and drinking are painted in rich reds and golds, Violetta and Alfredo's brief idyll in the country in cool colours. The final death scene is dominated by a transparent screen to the outside world where grotesquely enlarged figures from the carnival dance mock Violetta's last hours..
This season, there are two substantially different casts. In one Ermonela Jaho stars as Violetta Valery, Charles Castronovo as Alfredo Germont and Placido Domingo as the Father, Georgio Germont. In the production I saw the rising American soprano, Angel Blue plays Violetta, the French tenor Benjamin Bernheim Alfredo and Simone Piazzola his father. No-one could fail to admire Blue's confident, soaring notes, for example in the notoriously challenging Sempre Libera. She is also tall and glamorous, you might almost say show-stopping. These characteristics work well when she is holding court at her party, dazzling the men with her vivacity, but is less successful as the opera progresses and we are required to believe in her mental suffering and physical breakdown. Although I must admit that the audience gave her a huge ovation at the end so perhaps I am in a minority.
Tenor, Bernheim, sings with delicacy the tender arias of love but also brings a youthful volatility at other times, for example in O mio remorso when he discovers Violetta has been selling her possessions to fund their country life and he rushes off to Paris. He convinces us of his overwhelming love and hurt with every glorious note. I don't know how Piazzola's performance compares with the great Placido but he manages well the change from a man convinced of his absolute rightness, rectitude might be a better word, to the terrible realisation of his own guilt in the unfolding tragedy.
For all its wonderful tunes and charming dances (and dance music), La Traviata grips by making us that we are watching a story about a real life woman, perhaps representing others like her, but essentially, a great romantic heroine who gives up her life for the man she loves.
Conductor, Antonello Manacorda, making his ROH debut, keeps the Royal Opera House orchestra up to its usual high standards. The shock of Violetta's death, preceded by her wild sensation of returning life, brings us to the final tragic chords but the echoes of over two hours of some of Verdi's most captivating music continue for a long time afterwards.
Conductor: Antonello Manacorda
Director: Richard Eyre
Revival Director: Andrew Sinclair