Between the time Giuseppe Verdi debuted La Traviata in the mid nineteenth century and today, there have been enormous changes to opera audiences — and I’m not just talking about our oh-so-vulgar tendency to wear jeans. Since poor young Violetta first alternated delicate trills and sickly coughs back in 1853, we have, most importantly, forgotten just how sexy Tuberculosis can be. Led by slick director Peter Konwitschny, the ENO’s take on this melodramatic tragedy injects a little glamour into a disease that medicine tried to inoculate away.
Using minimal props and a series of red and grey curtains, designer Johannes Leiacker sets up a delicious opposition between the crisp, stylish world of the inner-city elite, and the pure and wholesome countryside, where worthy values such as love are the only essential accessories. In the city, a place where party-goers only relax so they’ll be ready to have more fun the next day, to live is to be social. Unfortunately for popular prostitute Violetta (Corinne Winters), dying is also an experience to be had in the public eye.
Choreographed with a certain liquidity, the chorus, a river of elegant bodies dressed in chic black costumes, ebb and flow around our tragic heroine. Wearing bibs made of napkins, and wielding cutlery as if ready to dissect and digest the latest portion of juicy news, this crowd is hungry for gossip, and as Violetta stands out in a covetable blood red gown, it is easy to see how she became the central point of every party and the focus of every gentleman’s attentions. But while she makes a bold visual presence, the Violetta of the first scene initially fits neatly into high society. Indeed, as her dress becomes camouflaged against the first of a sequence of detachable curtains, it’s clear that this world has embraced our tragic heroine.
Coming in at just over 100 minutes, Martin Fitzpatrick’s English translation manages to be as lean and economical as the production’s set design, without compromising on any of the dark intensity of Verdi’s themes. The libretto retains all of its passion and velocity, evident as Violetta declares that Alfredo’s affection has the power to transform a burning fever into a fire of love. Through such imagery, Fitzpatrick engages with the macabre seductiveness of this opera.
Wearing a succession of hairstyles ranging from the neat black bob of the high maintenance socialite, to a country-woman’s blonde curls tamed with a scarf, Winters neatly plots Violetta’s interactions with her two polarised worlds. Later, stripped of both her wigs and her dignity, Violetta has fallen from society and is ready to die. Once again, the tightly co-ordinated movements of Konwitschny’s chorus highlight a ruination as ladies and gentlemen fall to the ground after their discarded games, their crumbled society little more than a fallen house of cards.
Ben Johnson delivers an astute but suitably unremarkable performance as Alfredo, Violetta’s bookish lover, but in this adaptation Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Giorgio Germont is the truly dominant male force. Giorgio is a manipulative and controlling patriarch, and Michaels-Moore embellishes this power through uncomfortably persuasive staccato curses that position Alfredo firmly as an infant and remind us of Violetta’s ill-fated destiny.
This opera may paint a pessimistic image of polite society’s brutality, but it also teaches us that “for those who suffer, art can offer consolation”. Thanks to Konwitschny’s heightened and occasionally dreamlike artistry, the falling woman is cocooned in a heroic bubble of glamour. As she descends to her aesthetic death while those who betrayed her watch from a lit-up auditorium, Violetta’s helplessness and isolation is sharply underscored.
When the action bleeds into the stalls, our director holds up a mirror to another crowd desperate to consume a tale of demise. We may not be waving our knives and forks like our on-stage counterparts in the chorus, but this last sly comment seasons this beautifully envisioned and poetic tragedy with a relevance and a judgement that goes far beyond good design.
La Traviata is playing at London Coliseum until 3 March. For more information and tickets, see the ENO’s website.