Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
There is perhaps irony in the fact that an opera that took so long to achieve its composer’s contemporaneous ambitions for it is now a hallmark of tradition. Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave strove long and hard to have staged a version of La traviata that matched their original idea; a modern exercise in artistic realism, one that built gritty performance upon the literary richness of Alexander Dumas’ source text. At its best La traviata can retain that grittiness, even when put out in the costume and setting that Verdi and Piave envisioned (as here, in 1880’s Paris). The central tragic story of forbidden love is a story that speaks to, as well as through, the ages, after all. And there is a suggestion in this revival that we the audience must focus intently on era to get much from the story at all. This is not a failure, however. As Henry Matisse (an artist whose aesthetic attitude, perhaps, if not subject and palette, are hinted at – but sadly never carried through – in some scenes of this production) argued, ‘all art bears the imprint of its historical epoch’ but great art is that in which this imprint is most deeply marked. It is perhaps counter-intuitive to a modern reader to see the greatness in art as something that marks it tightly to its contextual time and place, rather than something that lifts it to a higher timeless plain. To a certain extent, any production of any staple that holds as tightly to tradition as this one does teases at the edges of this debate; it is the great production that wades in, and the disappointing that brushes past. WNO’s revival is unfortunately (and unhappily) but a brush with such vitality and so, as many of its actors often find themselves, spends much of its time in shadow.
The look of the thing might have been the saving grace. Tanya McCallin’s imposing Parisien parlour is everything a realist production could ask for. It is high, grand, and the clutter of the high life is well attended. When the cast comes together in the party scenes they arrange satisfyingly like an Adrien Emmanuel Marie painting. It is in the more intimate scenes that perhaps the untucked shirts and sallow eyes of Matisse may have been a way to go; but this is all largely beside the point, because for large periods areas of the stage are so poorly lit, accentuating what one hopes to be a metaphor in the heavy greys and blacks of the scenery and costumes, that one longs for the glistening golds and reds of an Anna Asp period set. The misery of the colour scheme does very little to reflect the fall of Violetta, and although she begins from a pretty low and hollow point, the audience is left squinting at the moments when her fortunes, along with her heart, are lifted out of the mire.
Agreed that as the cultural rudder of WNO’s Fallen Women season La traviata had quite a task on its hands, steering a characteristically ambitious and risky programme through choppy waters, but too often the unevenness of this production when compared to David Pountney’s first year makes it feel like mediocrity. This La traviata, a revival of David McVicar’s production, with promises of daring productions of Puccini and Henze as its mates, had an air of the dependable about it, the nod to the conservative connoisseur, the populist fair amidst the rabble-rousers, a guarantee of bums-on-seats. Unfortunately, ‘conservative’ too often became mundane, and, ultimately, the dragging and sagging of the production infested almost every aspect of the evening, even up to the point where a huge back curtain became unhinged at the climax and dropped slowly, almost graciously, from the rafter to hang midway in the background as Violetta drew her final breath. It was a metaphor that, sadly, was clear on the faces of the cast as they took their bows. The looks were of relief rather than triumph. An honourable, traditional production that failed to hit any kind of stride, and limped all the way to the end.
The signs were there from the off. A particularly lifeless rendition of the drinking song to top all drinking songs, the famous brindisi ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ set the tone of the hours that followed. Simon Phillippo’s orchestra threatened to spark into life, but never did. The performers continuously teetered on the edge of life. Linda Richardson’s Violetta gave a heartening performance, and stood out as a highlight, but failed to really take control of the stage. She was never utterly convincing as the winner of so many hearts; her ‘Ah! Fors e lui’, for example, could have been delivered with looser shoulders. Peter Sonn’s Adolfo was the most energetic presence, but it was a constant and uncomfortable battle with the pedestrian conductorship of Phillippo. It was the pace that held everything back. There were symbols of the lack of energy all over the place. Alan Opie as Alfredo’s father recovered well from a few croaked notes in the Second Act, but he never really got into the tragic swell of conflicted nobility that the part demands. La traviata can bark and swarm when at its best, the two leads tragic sirens in the centre of the Parisian socialite chorus. Verdi’s score is a wonderfully energetic tapestry, darting and diddling from one semiotic idea to another in rapid space. This one just ambled.
Every one of the cast suggested spirit, and if the pace of the orchestration formed a strong link in the shackles, the suspicion was that it was the buttoned-up conservatism of the production as a whole that held it back, in a company that is beginning, under David Pountney’s often exhilarating stewardship, to really let fly. As a spectacle it was, ultimately, a bit dull, and as artwork it failed to really teach anything. There was an unfortunate atmosphere throughout of going through the motions, of a bunch of extremely talented performers whose hearts were not entirely in it. Perhaps it is a trapping of a company who has produced such scintillating productions of Berg and Janáček last year, that when it comes to the staples of popular opera, the stuff that really gets the blood pumping of the leads is happening in different rehearsal rooms. But perhaps the success of this production will lie in the balance it provides to the Puccini and the Henze. We will wait and see.