Tuesday, March 08, 2016

La TRAVIATA at Covent Garden - last chance opera?

Constant Reader, as you know last year was my year of doing New Cultural Things - e.g. we went to the opera and ballet!  The outright winner was the ballet productions but we decided before we put the chill on opera for good, maybe we should see one of the classics at Covent Garden so last week found us there again, clutching tickets to see Verdi's LA TRAVIATA.

One of the reasons I chose this opera was that Covent Garden were reviving Richard Eyre's production from 1994 and if there was a director I would trust with guiding me through the operatic terrain it was him. 

Again I am surprised at how productions can be kept for years in a classical company's repertoire - in the 22 years since this production debuted, there have only been 7 years when it did not appear in a season.  Two years after he directed this, Richard Eyre directed a magnificent production of Ibsen's JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN with Paul Schofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins.  But this production has not been revived year after year, it lives only in memory.  Strange...  So, apart from that Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?


I must admit I was slightly worried that after a stressful day at work I might just go zonk in the dark but - stop the press - I stayed awake!  Not only awake but I enjoyed it too.  Yes I still have difficulty with the old problem of two people singing their love for each other endlessly while staring out into the auditorium - but I guess countless musicals are guilty of that too.

In 1847, Marie Duplessis, a courtesan who numbered Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas fils among her lovers, died aged only 23 from TB. Within a year, Dumas had published the roman a clef LE DAME AUX CAMELIAS and, as if to atone for the misogyny of that novel, he adapted it for the stage four years later.  Giuseppe Verdi saw the play and was immediately taken with it's tale of the tart with the heart and the dashing but dull hero whose love is ruined by his father and her dodgy lungs.  A year later Verdi's LA TRAVIATA premiered - they didn't waste time back then - and despite a disastrous premiere the opera has become one of the greats of the classical stage while the play has inspired countless versions, the most famous being George Cukor's 1936 film CAMILLE with the luminous Greta Garbo as Marguerite.

Told in only four scenes, the opera's libretto alternates between large ensemble set-pieces to more intimate confrontations between the characters and is, of course, borne along on Verdi's sweeping and romantic score.  Eyre's production moves between these scenes with ease and in the two intimate ones - Violetta being forced to give up her lover by his disapproving father and the final scene as she struggles for one minute more - they were played with intense directness with no scenic distractions.  This revival has been re-directed by Rodula Gaitanou.

Bob Crowley's design ranges from the opulent to the more intimate and in the final scene - in a nod to his design for the original LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES - Violetta's shadowy and stripped-down bedroom is surrounded by slatted windows which also showcases Jean Kalman's exquisite lighting.

Violetta was played by Italian soprano Maria Agresta and she certainly gave a fine performance, the last scene was heart-rending as she briefly rallied at the sight of her estranged lover and the tragic final flutter of life before dying.  As I said, she was very good but sadly we were a few rows in front of a mega-fan who bellowed "B R A V A" repeatedly at her every curtain call.  I suspect even she would have told him to pipe the fuck down.  

I must admit to a couple of surprises: I didn't know that you actually clapped the arias as I thought you sat in dutiful silence till the curtain and - who knew they still did this - Agresta took a bow at the first interval!  It threw me completely - it's like if Imelda Staunton took a bow after singing "Everything's Coming Up Roses" before the interval of GYPSY.  Suffice to say, method acting has not arrived at the opera yet.

Piero Pretti was an equally impassioned Alfredo but the character is such a twit that it is hard to sympathise with him - Robert Taylor was exactly the same in CAMILLE.  However I did enjoy some of the supporting performances: Quinn Kelsey's stern father M. Germont who realises too late the depth of Violetta's love for his son, Gaynor Keeble's devoted maid Annina and James Platt's sympathetic Doctor Grenvil.

So there we go.. the first opera I think I have really enjoyed since the mid-80s double whammy of English National Opera productions CARMEN and AKHNATEN - both of which were free as Andrew was working there at the time!

Could this finally be me getting into opera?  Watch this space... I am seeing AKHNATEN again at English National Opera this Saturday.

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