Another revival of Richard Eyre’s seemingly timeless production of La traviata (first unveiled in 1994) has returned to the Royal Opera House. It provides a further opportunity to hear yet another cast, this time with three rotating eponymous heroines. The handsome sets remain in place, gloriously expansive yet simultaneously confining in both the opening salon scene and the Act Two card game where the chorus appear to be boxed in with little room for manoeuvre. After nearly thirty years I’m surprised this unimaginative approach hasn’t been superseded – it’s plush operetta rather than tragic melodrama. But Bob Crowley’s vast sets still make a wonderfully opulent statement, and those sumptuous costumes with all their detail remain eye-catching. Eyre’s traditional and non-interventionist attitude means we are not burdened with novel interpretations on wealth, class, power – yet halfway through this all too comfortable-looking and bourgeois staging I yearned for some heightened dramatic tension that might have some relevance today.
That said, Monday’s trio of principals was mostly convincing, and fortunately there were two exceptional leads. Making a very welcome return was American soprano Angel Blue, reprising her Violetta from the 2018/19 season when she made a sensational Garden debut. She has a compelling presence and expresses feelings as naturally as breathing. Whether conjuring determination, fragility or passion, she pours her heart into Violetta and fulfils her complex role with complete assurance. Vocally, she’s pretty nigh flawless, and while she seemed fractionally challenged early on with her coloratura (notwithstanding a magnificent top E flat at the end of Act One’s pyrotechnics) her finely spun legato later revealed a wonderfully gratifying tone. Her passionate plea to Alfredo in Act Two is finely achieved and the nostalgic death bed ‘Addio del passato’ was heartrending. Most remarkable was her magnificent control between bouts of coughing and delivering such beauty of tone whilst conveying a woman barely capable of standing straight. This had to be one of the most moving death bed scenes I’ve yet to see.
She’s partnered by Dymtro Popov’s Alfredo Germont, a Ukrainian tenor who forsakes any conventional machismo for a more modest, diffident persona, initially restrained (no Latin lover here) and who only seems to expand and relax after his marriage to Violetta. His brindisi was promising, but insufficiently rousing to suggest virility, while ‘O mio rimorso!’ blossomed, Popov now finding his stride. Malice and regret were well defined; bitterness in the gambling scene and later a degree of desperation born of a bleak, unfulfilled future, yet one that Alfredo still believes in for Violetta.
Less compelling was Vladimir Stoyanov’s Germont who disappointed with a limited body language that failed to disturb or convey any authority or false charm. I daresay it’s unfair to observe his baritone is almost too warm for the role, but his beautiful voice wrapped itself round the Act Two arias with such ease I began to forget what an unpleasant father he’s supposed to be. Making the most of the stage is commendable, but when a relationship depends on some degree of proximity, the distances between Stoyanov and Popov did not bring any underlying tension to their scenes.
Supporting roles have yet to gain much distinction: Egor Zhuravskii acquitted himself pleasingly as Viscount Gaston, Yuriy Yurchuk was a stern Baron Douphol, Jeremy White a reliable Marquis d’Obigny and Blaise Malaba a comforting Dr Grenvil whose mahogany baritone was a perfect fit for the role. Gaynor Keeble and Angela Simkin were both effective as Annina and Flora Bervoix. Gypsies and matadors brought vigorous singing from the well-drilled Chorus.
In the pit, Renato Balsadonna had an intuitive understanding of the score, illuminating Verdi’s rich instrumental palette and coaxing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra detailed accompaniments, memorably so from an eloquent clarinet in ‘Dammi tu forza, o cielo’ and haunting brass for the finale’s slow march. The two preludes were both shapely creations too. But the night belonged to Angel Blue whose intensely moving final scene where everything contrived to moisten the eyes crowned an evening of remarkable singing and vivid playing.
Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata
Violetta Valéry – Angel Blue, Alfredo Germont – Dymtro Popov, Giorgio Germont – Vladimir Stoyanov, Flora Bervoix – Angela Simkin, Viscount Gaston – Egor Zhuravskii, Baron Douphol – Yuriy Yurchuk, Marquis d’Obigny – Jeremy White, Dr Grenvil – Blaise Malaba, Annina – Gaynor Keeble; Director – Richard Eyre, Conductor – Renato Balsadonna, Revival Director – Barbara Lluch, Designer – Bob Crowley, Lighting – Jean Kalman, Movement – Jane Gibson, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 4th April 2022.
ABOVE: Angel Blue (Violetta) and Dymtro Popov (Alfredo) (c) Tristram Kenton