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Verdi, La Traviata Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera cond. Jonathan Darlington. London Coliseum, 20.09. 2006 (CC)




There is little doubt that the gratuitous relocation of Verdis La Traviata to Dublin in the late nineteenth century will provide plenty of ammunition for those who enjoy ridiculing contemporary opera production. The shift does not make a huge amount of sense (Germont père objects on the grounds that she is Protestant and his family is Catholic), and neither does the  producer Conall Morrisons strangely exact instructions as to where in Dublin the various scenes take place (Merrion Square, County Wicklow, etc). It was all rather distracting and the one thing it wasn’t – importantly – was illuminating. Spanish Toreadors in Dublin look rather daft, too, whether it is meant as an entertainment or not (Act II Scene 2).


Disaster had struck on the opening night when Rhys Meirion had called in sick, to be replaced by the Australian tenor Dwayne Jones. Meirion was still indisposed on the Saturday, so Jones' services were once more called upon. Jones is just about acceptable, but nothing special. One can point to his well-negotiated ornaments in the Libiamo’ (‘Let’s drink from the spring of happiness’) and smooth legato, but the second his Violetta entered he was overshadowed. Only towards the end of Act II when he speaks of clearing his debt did he get any better.


The Violetta, and the star of the show by far, was Emma Bell, making her role debut (note that Linda Richardson takes over on October 19th and in November). She has all the strength of voice the role demands, and all the vocal mobility, too, while her death scene was remarkably believable. The coloratura requirements of the first act were expertly negotiated, and she can play with her voice’s timbre with astonishing ease. She’s even about the right age and shape. Most importantly, she conveyed the desperation of her character in the final parts of Act I. Bell came into her own in the third Act (set in the slum area of ‘The Blackpitts’). Her surroundings reeked of destitution – her own anguish was palpable, her decline both visible and audible. The death scene was musically remarkable for her and her alone.


The part of Germont père was taken by the Canadian baritone James Westman (wearing at first a simply improbable hat). The main problem here was lack of vocal depth. There is a slight edge to his voice that is not particularly appealing. If the threatened violence with fists perhaps fits into the purported brash Irish Protestant/Catholic conflict idea, it did not fit in with the dramatic trajectory of the act that we were experiencing (the conductor’s habit of rushing needlessly hardly helped). Of the other singers, it was Graeme Danby’s nicely focused Doctor Grenvil and Donald Maxwell’s superb Baron Douphol that impressed the most.


Jonathan Darlington made a huge impression in the Act I Prelude, inspiring the strings to marvels of control (lots of stage activity here – it almost looked like they’d got the decorators in!). But his timing lacked discipline; he frequently let the music almost run away with itself. Tempos were often just a little fast, so definition was lost or the underlying angst was underplayed. New productions at the Coliseum are always talking points, and this one, it turns out, inspires discussion more than most.




Colin Clarke


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)