Red curtains peel apart tentatively to reveal a chair… and another set of red curtains. And that, in essence (save for a stack of books) is it for the set and props department in Peter Konwitschny’s spare, pared-down version of Verdi’s La Traviata for English National Opera. Life for Violetta is a performance and as each set of curtains draws aside, we get to see the layers of her character stripped away until the final scene. When the last curtains part, there remains only the black void of certain death into which she staggers – there are no more curtains to hide behind. Unbelievably, this co-production (with Graz) was Konwitschny’s directorial debut in London and it was always bound to be a controversial one, which generates added interest and debate.
The grapevine can be a dangerous thing. Everything I’d read or been told about this production – ‘ripped to shreds’ was a common phrase – should have had me running for cover, yet the only production of Konwitschny’s I have seen (his Don Carlos on DVD) had me enthralled. Not everything convinced there, but some of his insights were incredibly effective, so I was determined to approach this Traviata with an open mind (as any good critic should, of course).
Of all Verdi’s operas, La traviata was the only one to which he granted a contemporary setting, reflecting Dumas fils’ original novel, thus scandalizing society with its blatant realism. Maintaining the opera in its 19th century setting can turn it into an historical museum piece – albeit one which can still tug the heartstrings; Richard Eyre’s production for the Royal Opera is justly celebrated and I have a very soft spot for David McVicar’s production, which is essentially more a setting of Dumas than it is of Verdi. Konwitschny drags the opera up to date, thus illustrating the hypocrisy in our attitudes to prostitution. We kid ourselves that we are a more sexually liberated society, yet nothing has really changed. This is reflected in the role of the ENO Chorus – a predatory bunch who mock Violetta’s bouts of illness and stalk her like paparazzi. They’re not her friends, they’re vultures, lapping up her humiliation at the end of Act II. Bored of this life and hounded by society, Violetta’s desperation and loneliness is clearly depicted by Konwitschny, which makes her seemingly rash decision to abandon it all for Alfredo an entirely obvious course of action.
Violetta knows she is dying – Doctor Grenvil administers an injection after her fainting fit of Act I – and she decides to pack in her public life for a chance of short-lived happiness with the bookish, duffel-coated Alfredo, who garners inspiration from his notebook – self-penned poetry or a self-help guide? – in which his nose is buried. He clearly feels uncomfortable in the sort of society that Violetta inhabits, as much an outsider as she is, although at opposite extremes. Her response in the Brindisi is more about rejecting her public than embracing the idea of a relationship with the gauche newcomer into her circle, but she seems to find inspiration from his words, becoming so absorbed in his tome that she ignores her guests tearing into each other after supper. In the Act II finale, the curtains are torn down as Violetta’s life descends into tatters, everyone collapsing to the ground, which is littered with playing cards. Partygoers crawl off during the Act III prelude, leaving Violetta alone, asleep on the floor, clutching Alfredo’s cardigan. Johannes Leiacker's simple set design is sensitively lit by Joachim Klein.
Konwitschny makes use of the auditorium in some scenes. Alfredo makes his off-stage contributions in ‘Sempre libera’ wandering through the stalls, egging her on, drawing her back to the text in his book. Violetta’s death finds her alone on stage, with the other participants spectators – like us – from the stalls. Even in death, Violetta remains alone. Quite how much of this was visible to any of the audience higher up in the Coliseum is a moot point, but Konwitschny has form in this regard. This is the director who had Philip II and his entourage make their entrance for the auto-da-fé in Don Carlos via the public lobby of the Vienna State Opera before processing through the auditorium. (He is also the director who recasts the ballet ‘La peregrina’ as ‘Eboli’s Dream’, in which Eboli fantasizes about being married to Carlos and having the in-laws round for supper’! Controversial? Yes. But it makes a dramatic point about Eboli’s motivation.)
For a show which reportedly rips to shreds Verdi’s score, its cuts aren’t inflicted too heavily. We lose Violetta’s single line ‘Pronto e' il tutto?’ (understandably enough, as she doesn’t appear to have any servants in Act I) and the two choruses in Act II are hacked off without any great loss – they only serve to hold up the action. Perhaps surprisingly, Germont père’s ‘Di Provenza il mar’, an aria which isn’t among Verdi’s finest inspirations, is retained in full, although his cabaletta, usually clipped to a single verse, is excised entirely. There are small cuts to Act III – no second verse of ‘Addio del passato’ (a pity when it’s so well sung) nor an off-stage carnival to haunt Violetta, who also makes no donation to the poor. Playing the whole thing without an interval is welcome, accelerating and concentrating the action.
ENO Harewood Artist Ben Johnson sang a terrific role debut as Alfredo. Perhaps the bright timbre of his tenor was at odds with the bookish introvert Konwitschny paints him, but that’s hardly his fault. Perhaps more in keeping with his character was the decision not to go for the high note at the end of his cabaletta (one verse only) and Alfredo’s idea of petulance being to kick over his stack of books. Johnson’s stylish phrasing and clear diction were impressive. He was also a sympathetic duet partner, responding and reacting intelligently.
The role of Violetta is an operatic tour-de-force and is even more so here, when the action is so heavily concentrated around her and the whole opera is played without a break. Making her ENO (indeed her European) debut, Corinne Winters rose to the challenge quite magnificently. Her Violetta is hard-bitten and her diamond-sharp coloratura of Act I was suitably aggressive in ‘Sempre libera’ (or ‘Let me live the life I want’ in Martin Fitzpatrick’s mostly sympathetic English translation). It’s an athletic performance – Winters has to sing whilst falling from the chair in the first verse – and she captures Violetta’s giddy joy at her prospects of finally finding a man she can love who loves her, not least with a tremendous interpolated E flat at the aria’s conclusion. From her little red cocktail dress (shades of Willy Decker?) Violetta goes all hippy in Act II, donning a bandana, checked shirt, cargo pants and boots. Winters was most affecting here, especially in duet with Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Germont. Even after the sacrifice he forces her to make, her concern for how Alfredo will take the news is uppermost in her mind, leading her to persuade Germont to hide in the curtain so he’s there to comfort his son. In Act III, Winters sang a very fine ‘Addio del passato’ (‘It’s over, all these memories’), with some beautiful messa di voce. She received loud acclaim at the curtain call, richly deserved.
Germont père’s interpretation is controversial. Alfredo’s father is conservative and severe in his views, but here he comes across as a bully – both physically and psychologically. Konwitschny adds the mute appearance of Alfredo’s sister to bolster their father’s argument that Violetta should give up her lover to protect the reputation of his family. Mademoiselle Germont (Kezhe Julian Temir) is barely in her teens and is made to look as bookish and awkward as her older brother. The idea that a marriage is imminent just makes Germont appear all the more preposterous, yet his brusque treatment of his daughter marks him out as a dangerous man and explains Alfredo’s introverted character. He’s a bully who cannot control his temper, yet is shocked by his actions, recoiling in horror after he strikes his daughter. Yet he does soften as the duet goes on, trying to grab the pistol Violetta produces from her handbag which she threatens to turn upon herself. Anthony Michaels-Moore had a few gruff moments, fortunately in keeping with Germont’s character, but projected well. ‘Di Provenza’ (‘What has turned your heart away?’ was well sung, especially the tender lines in the second verse.
Minor roles – and they were stripped down further with the cuts to the second scene of Act II – were effectively taken, especially Martin Lamb’s Grenvil, still donning his party hat and under the influence of alcohol when attending to Violetta (not exactly model bedside manner!) and Paul Hopwood’s effusive Gaston. Clare Presland’s Flora is less ‘best friend’ than part of the predatory chorus, upsetting Violetta at the end of the Brindisi. Valerie Reid’s Annina was the character who I felt suffered most in this version, never really allowed to forge an effective relationship with Violetta, which was a pity, but it extended her mistress’ isolation.
German conductor Michael Hofstetter, also making his ENO debut, led a purposeful, efficient orchestral performance, sympathetic to his singers and setting good tempi.
So, a triumph or travesty of a Traviata? In stripping the opera down to its bare bones, I’d argue greater truths about Violetta’s plight are revealed – especially her precarious relationship with society - and although ultimately not as emotionally moving as some productions, I found it an utterly absorbing experience, incredibly theatrical and well worth a visit to the Coliseum to arrive at your own verdict.
Photographs © Tristram Kenton