Royal Opera House 2019-20 Review: La Traviata
Soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz Powers Through With Solid Support from Simon Keenlyside, Liparet Avetisyan, & Richard Eyre’s Reliable ProductionBy Benjamin Poore
(Credit: Catherine Ashmore)
This review is for the performance on Dec. 21, 2019.
Richard Eyre’s production of “La Traviata” is celebrating its 25th year at the Royal Opera House, having proved itself a rock-solid box office winner alongside John Copley’s recently retired production of “La bohème.”
This season will see 20 performances of it with three conductors and four casts, so Londoners will not be short on opportunities to see Verdi’s social melodrama after Dumas fils’ “La Dame aux Camélias.”
Richard Eyre’s production is reliably bankable for good reason. Bob Cowley’s restrained designs and sculpted shapes function like containers for Verdi’s emotional eloquence, and don’t need to do much more than that. This is all underlined by unobtrusive but instructive lighting from Jean Kalman. The curved settings for Violetta’s party and the card game are gloomily lit and suffocating, particularly claustrophobic when the enlarged chorus and actors crowd into them.
The detailing is well-judged: the backdrop of Act one are actually illustrated by a dingy, faded landscape that has turned to something rather sludgy and dirty; Violetta’s apartment in the final act has a dusty, rundown feeling that likewise tells us that the demimonde is saturated with decay and dereliction – and that Violetta is headed the same way.
Alfredo’s country pile is decorated in a way that suggests fresh air and the freedom of unconstricted breathing, with eggshell-blue walls and homely, white-and-blue terracotta hearth that stretches toward the ceiling. But it’s bought on borrowed time, as we are told by the paintings wrapped up for the auctioneer. The use of outsize furniture and fittings – Violetta’s huge mirror in the final act, and the overlarge card table and lamp in the latter part of act two – tells us about the distorted values of this world, and the frail smallness of people caught in its cruel and indifferent currents.
Violetta, it was announced before curtain up, was sick (no jokes about method acting, please). But Armenian soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz decided to bravely soldier on despite feeling unwell, which is no mean feat given that Act one is quite literally Violetta’s party, and features some of the most demanding and exposed fioratura and passagework in the repertory, where the top Cs and D-flats must sparkle like vintage Veuve Cliquot (the actual health-giving properties of champagne for the consumptive and the drink’s place in opera are expounded upon in an excellent essay in the programme book by Warwick Thompson).
Given her health we had to settle for prosecco, in what was an inauspicious beginning. Bassenz was in cloudy voice at the outset, and struggled to cut through Daniel Oren’s high-strung conducting in the first scene.
Her coloratura in “Sempre Libre” was patchy and intonation on top notes often went astray and turned sharp, particularly on an exposed cor in that latter number. She wisely eschewed the interpolated E-flat at the close of the act. But this can, generously, all be chalked up to ill-health: in the less extreme passages there was the sound of a strong technique and plenty of control, and she managed some impressive coloratura when flat on her back.
The rest of her performance would see things clear up considerably in an improvement so remarkable that she might consider marketing a cold and flu remedy. If there was some reduction in power, Bassenz turned it to her advantage: her floated pianissimo moments spoke of her isolation and vulnerability, particularly in a breathtaking “Damni tu forza o cieolo.”
If her sound was less polished in the final act’s showstopper number (“Addio del passato”) then a convincing physical performance certainly helped to fill in the blanks, without overdoing the coughing fits.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Simon Keenlyside’s Giorgio Germont was perfectly judged: stiffly patrician, whose rigid movements suggested coldness and indifference. Much of this was exemplified in the clipped articulation and icy flourishes of Act two’s “Un di quando le veneri.” If Keenlyside’s voice has become darker and more gravelly it has lost none of its power in the spectacular declamatory coloratura at the climax of his “Di Provenza.” There, his tough lyricism became a weapon to beat his son with. The aria’s pastoral simplicity was less a charming interlude that dreams of country life, but instead the deluded and unyielding worldview of a moralizing bourgeois whose idealization of the simple life was a way of purging his son’s and Violetta’s urban excesses. His acting in the climactic scene of the opera was a masterclass in the economical expression of regret and the slow realization that he has destroyed his son’s life and their relationship.
Liparet Avetisyan, another Armenian in a lead role, was a velvety Alfredo, with seamless changes of register and plenty of youthful ardor. A fresh-faced look helped cement the impression, supported by a bright and flexible voice, of someone not just inexperienced but emotionally unequipped to deal with the nightmare of Act three.
Avetisyan’s energy veered between the ardent and the impetuous, and was a compelling portrait of messy and, frankly, adolescent desire. His “De miei bollenti spiriti” was less a warm and tender picture of his desire than something bursting forth, with a sometimes hard sound that may have been technically imperfect but was dramatically convincing. More assured was a genuinely leggiero drinking song, whose lightheadedness was highly suggestive of the character’s excitement and nerves.
The relationship with Germont père was particularly instructive: one sensed an arrested sensibility crushed beneath a cold and distant father, from whom he has learned the callousness he shows to Violetta when he humiliates her in Act two. Underlying this is a very fragile and deeply ashamed young man who is unready for a world as complex as the one Violetta and his father represent. It’s rare to feel such, or much, sympathy for this character and here Avetisyan painted a powerful portrait of someone stifled and misguided, and whose love of Violetta came from is the expression of pent-up, even resentful, energies.
Daniel Oren’s conducting was something of a mystery. Often it seemed to hinder more than help. A sugary and unfocused prelude to Act one felt oddly directionless; and he tried to rather over-ardently animate the subsequent section, when Verdi’s writing is rather more restrained and graceful, with its delicate string countermelodies. He and the chorus clearly had quite different ideas about tempi in some of the Act one set pieces. Theirs was preferable to his. As a consequence, the ensemble was quite rocky throughout the opera, though the Act two finale came off well.
What felt like a slightly hyperactive approach to the score did sometimes pay off though. The dance tableau of Act two had lightness and spritz, and the music accompanying the card game was driven by bullish lower strings, giving it a glorious frisson of macho danger.
Special mention should go to principal clarinet Timothy Orpen whose solo as Violetta writes her letter of farewell to Alfredo was pure understated plangency, powerfully spare and desolate.
In all, this was a performance reflected a sum being stronger than its individual parts, though some of that was the result of extenuating circumstances (an ill soprano whose commitment is undeniably admirable). With so many other remaining performances, there is no doubt that the sum and its parts are bound to create a truly cohesive whole at some point.