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Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Yves Abel. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8.7.2010 (JPr)

Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta

Richard Eyre’s 1994 production had the last of its umpteen revivals as recently as this May and returns again for a short run, ostensibly – it seems in hindsight – as a series of dress rehearsals for forthcoming performances on a Royal Opera tour to Japan. When it was first appeared I was also there to witness Georg Solti conduct a young Angela Gheorghiu, appearing in it just two years on from her Covent Garden debut. She was the undoubted star of the evening then and the opera sent her on the path to ‘Divadom’. Last year I saw a revival with Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson overseen by Eyre himself for the first time since 1994 and their combined talents brought us a memorable evening (see review) Only a matter of days ago too there was even more outstanding Verdi with the Domingo-led Simon Boccanegra (review) yet with this La traviata Verdian sublimity had unfortunately passed on to something, by comparison, slightly ridiculous.

On an evening such as this, aspects of Eyre’s production soon began to jar. Was the set for Act I meant to be merely Violetta’s salon and if so where was the rest of the house? The ice sculpture and gold glitter seemed to be more important than finding any room for the party guests. Later, Violetta’s dilapidated country house was squeezed to the front of the stage to allow the ensuing scene change to a lavish ‘bullring’ setting for the gambling scene at Flora’s party. Act III saw Violetta’s demise in the huge bedroom containing only a bed, a chair, a gigantic mirror and not much else, not even clothes for the heroine on what is supposed to be a February day aalthough I have to admit that this was the first time I have ever seen Violetta’s ‘vision’ of Alfredo’s impending arrival in a mirror. What is more than evident however, is that Richard Eyre’s staging in these often opulent sets ( with appropeiately opulent costumes by Bob Crowley) cannot survive being under-rehearsed as here, or having a soprano with different ideas about tempi to those of her relatively young conductor. The earlier run of performances in May did not mean that everything can come smoothly back together in July without more rehearsal. Admittedly, the smaller roles were sung well but even the always reliable chorus seemed to have left their Verdian soul behind with Simon Boccanegra: they did not distinguish themselves in La traviata.

As in the 2009 revival when Renée Fleming sang Violetta, Angela Gheorghiu, who is returning to Covent Garden in this role for the first time since 1996, is now no longer capable of portraying a woman in her twenties as the character is supposed to be. Ms Fleming gave us a dignified Violetta as Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, while Ms Gheorghiu seemed to suffering from erotomania in Act I flinging herself around the stage in some self-inflicted delirium reminding me more of Butterfly than Violetta – perhaps to cover up the fact that she now finds Act I quite a challenge. She got through it by conserving her resources at the start, singing so quietly that I though something was wrong with my ears; and then by squeezing out subsequent coloratura passages with sheer physical effort. It was at this point too that Gheorghiu and her conductor parted company on more than one occasion. Her fabulous voice is still mostly intact but as time moves on, some of her earlier roles should surely be left behind. She was more at ease in Acts II and III and her reactions to Germont Senior’s request to abandon his son for the sake of his reputation, to Alfredo publically insulting her in Act II, and their reconciliation and death in his arms in Act III, were as affecting as ever and the sound as glorious as expected. It is significant though that in 1994 Solti opened up all the cuts but here we had only one verse in her arias.

I will not waste too many words on James Valenti’s Alfredo. He looked awkward on stage and did not sing well. There appear to be no ‘money notes’ in his voice and I was grateful there was also only one verse of his Act II ‘Oh mio rimorso!’ before he ran off stage to escape the mangled top C at the end of it. More disturbingly, since they have recently sung their roles together at the Met, there was absolutely no chemistry between Gheorghiu and Valenti. ŽeljkoLučič’s Giorgio Germont was better though even he did not seems entirely unaffected by what was going on around him and gave basically one-dimensional ‘stand and deliver’ accounts of ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ and ‘Di Provenza’. Yet with his physical presence and secure lyric baritone, this did not seem to matter too much and his Act II encounter with Violetta was probably the highlight of this dispiriting evening.

Yves Abel clearly wanted this evening out of the way as quickly as possible and rushed though the score with its predictable consequences on the ensemble between stage and pit - not to forget the problems caused by a soprano with her own ideas of how it should all be sung. I am sure he will have better evenings though to which I look forward as I am sure he is a talented conductor.

Finally, I should add that with Angela Gheorghiu basically portraying one of the healthiest looking consumptives likely to be seen on stage anywhere, it was left to the audience to be the noisiest I have heard for many years at Covent Garden. I was reminded of the recorded message at the Royal Festival Hall that has Sir Ian McKellen intoning 'please keep coughing to a minimum' and I wonder whether there is any thought of Covent Garden adding that to their mobile phone announcement. At one point I thought Angela Gheorghiu was going to stop the show and say something about the noise, which was almost like one of those Sound of Music or Mamma Mia sing-alongs that we can go to nowadays ... except that this was cough and sneeze-along with Traviata.

At the end of the opera Ms Gheorghiu was spot lit for a curtain call full of enthusiastic waving to the audience and feigned surprise at the camera flashes, bouquet and ecstatic reception she was getting. If only the rest of the evening had been rehearsed as well as this!

Jim Pritchard

Picture © The Royal Opera/Catherine Ashmore 

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