Like many of Verdi’s operas, La Traviata is about Love and Death. With capital letters. The first production in English in 1857 had the further title of ‘The Blighted One.’ But this says more about Victorian England than the story of Violetta, a society prostitute or, in Parisian chic, a ‘horizontale’. Based on the heroine of Alexandre Dumas’s famous novel, then play, ‘La Dame aux Camelias’, Violetta is as much the beloved, tragic heroine as the purest of Verdi’s creations. She is also, at the start of the drama, a voracious seeker after the surreal happiness that can be found in the city’s bars and ballrooms, where counts mix intimately with courtesans.

ENO’s production, originally directed by Peter Konwitschny in 2013, storms onto the stage with a dramatic black costumed cast where Violetta’s scarlet dress, black wig and long black gloves immediately mark her as the apex of the crowd. American Nicole Chevalier who plays her has a voice powerful enough to match the demanding role, easily rising to the wonderful melodies of Verdi’s music and gradually softening as Violetta’s end approaches.

For, despite the waves of waltz tunes that make a powerful heart beat through the music, Violetta is dying from the start. Enter Alfredo Germont, played by Jose Simerilla Romero, who not only sings the role with deep conviction, but looks just like the intellectual he is supposed to be. Think Arthur Miller and Marylin Monroe. When Alfredo says he loves her, he is believable, even though at first Violetta laughs in his face.

But love wins, for a while at least. The lovers live together in house in the country. Since this is a production with no sets save the swish of curtain layers as life moves back and forth, we must use our imagination or, better still, the music, to picture their romantic contentment. Alfredo has saved his beloved from immorality and it would seem the next adversary will be death. But that is yet to come.

Enter Alfredo’s father, Georgio Germont A stern patriarch, who feels no compunction in patronising and bullying the prostitute who, as he sees it, has lured his son off the straight and narrow. But again, we are surprised because this man full of righteous anger is given the most glorious and seductive music. It is perfectly sung by Roland Wood as he persuades Violetta that she must leave Alfredo so that his sister’s chances, ‘an angel’, of a good marriage will not be ruined by his connection with a prostitute. Only slightly moved by Violetta’s agony, Georgio condemns her to a life without love, and paves the way for death to move in.

Great music has a way of making even the most banal operatic death tug at the heart strings. But this is a woman who has given up her hedonistic way of flouting death to follow love, and now has been left with nothing. Yet, in her extremis, she is suddenly told that Alfredo is coming to her. We are given no tumbled bedsheets or lace nightdress to surround her final scene. Instead, after Alfredo’s remorseful reunion with his beloved, he gradually pulls away from the stage where she lies, and makes his way to the amphitheatre where his father stands watching among the audience. Violetta is to be alone in death. This is a daring move but perhaps it makes Violetta’s great valedictory cry, ‘Gioia!’ (Joy) more extraordinary and more tragic.

None of this would make any sense without the ENO’s magnificent orchestra. It was good to seem them and conductor, Richard Farnes, take a bow onstage with the singers. A word of praise too for the chorus who created the energy of the first act, not only with their voices but with their acting. This hyper emotional current carried through the whole tremendous evening.

La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi
English translation Martin Fitzpatrick
Conductor Richard Farnes, Director Peter Konwitschny, Revival Director, Ruth Knight, Designer Johannes Leiacker

Picture credit: Belinda Jiao