There are many things that dazzle in Daniel Kramer’s new production of La Traviata: shiny excess, costumes from many different eras and cultures, even a ball pit. Unfortunately, fewer things manage to connect and resonate, and perhaps this is where the ENO’s new take on Verdi’s most beloved opera goes wrong.
Conductor Leo McFall leads an orchestra that, although focused, fails to communicate the intensity of the score; the Prelude starts so softly, it’s more timid than delicate. A score so gripping and iconic such as this one requires far more agency and vigour. Sadly, I found the same problems with the leads: Lukhanyo Moyake, although clear and consistent, offers an Alfredo who lacks passion and the unquenchable thirst for love. Instead, he often becomes a sidekick in his own love story. Claudia Boyle takes the lead as Violetta, a role that requires incredible stamina and versatility, and while Boyle moves confidently on stage, her voice often fails to reach the far seats and she sings under the note on several occasions. None of this would mean the production’s doom, but above all the love Violetta and Alfredo share don’t seem to resonate with us: everything is demonstrated rather than resonated.
Alan Opie, who is celebrating his fiftieth year with the ENO, is the star of the night for me: his voice is filled with warmth to the brim and shares wonderful moments with Boyle in their duet, turning the second act into the most memorable one. His performance might not be flawless, but succeeds at bringing heart to the otherwise disconnected production.
I also cannot help but admire Lizzie Clachan’s design: she is a master of not only presenting excess, but also showing the emptiness beyond it. In the first act the performers go crazy on her playground before stepping out of her mirrored cage, seemingly disappearing into black, negative space. Similarly, Clachan creates a stark contrast in Act Two where the countryside is presented as a green patch of isolation, leaving the lovers stranded in the vast, empty stage. Even the melodramatic final act, in which Violetta is digging her own grave (an image overly literal and demonstrating little to no subtlety) is painted elegantly by Clachan: her space is gridded by dirty mattresses, looking like tombstones, illuminated by a tunnel of light which pokes through a claustrophobic, slanted ceiling. Her intelligent spaces are lit strategically by Charles Balfour, who silently builds atmosphere and drama with an elegant lighting design (I cannot even imagine how difficult it could be to light a stage crowded by mirrored surfaces).
Visually, the production has everything to floor you. But is this look right for La Traviata? Ultimately, Kramer reaches for far too many visual references to overload a story that is otherwise elegant in its simplicity. Violetta does not need validation or empowerment. Her journey of falling in love and self-sacrifice should be enough for us to not only feel for her but also admire her. Perhaps the ENO was so determined to impress and shine, it forgot to celebrate the music and reach out to us.
La Traviata is playing at the ENO until 8 April
Photo: Catherine Ashmore