It is with Verdi’s maddeningly beautiful melodies still trilling round in my head that I write this review of the ENO’s La Traviata at the company’s home, the London Coliseum. In Verdi’s 1853 opera, hot prostitute-of-the-moment Violetta is reviled by the society that simultaneously celebrates and rejects her, and takes a punt at love with an unlikely suitor, the socially awkward Alfredo Germont. Exhibiting far more humanity than any other character throughout, she is persuaded to sacrifice Alfredo, who of course immediately joins the slut-shaming multitudes to assuage his sense of rejection. But of course, just as the couple reconcile, she succumbs to the nineteenth-century heroine’s compulsory attack of consumption.
This is the third revival of director Peter Konwitschy’s critically acclaimed production, and a wise move for an ENO that has just this week been pulled up by the Arts Council and threatened with funding cuts. As if in response to this necessary belt-tightening (though still featuring an expensively large chorus), the production boasts a great sparseness of mis-en-scène, bringing its audience no more stage furniture than its performer: three sets of curtains, a pile of books and a single wooden chair.
While this decision is in keeping with the sharp-focused and excitingly rebellious flavour of the production (which also features shoes, books and people being thrown across the stage, and total disregard for the fourth wall), the emptiness of the space starts to become oppressive, and make the action slightly bewildering – especially in this new, shortened version with no sense of time or place. As the looming curtains are torn down, leaving Violetta alone on an empty stage, the picture would have been more poignant if the stage had not been empty all along.
Elizabeth Zharoff is superb as Violetta, with great expression and charisma, utterly convincing and committed in the huge range of the character’s emotions. While her powerful vibrato takes a little while to get used to, she does perfect, heart-breaking justice to the timeless aria ‘Amami Alfredo’ (‘Love Me, Alfredo’), and her later moments of pianissimo are beautifully controlled. Her exuberance is offset by the reserve of Ben Johnson’s Alfredo, who plays the part with intensity, but is somewhat upstaged. With glasses obscuring his face, and a stiller performance, it is difficult for an audience to make emotional contact with him.
With a wonderfully rich, booming baritone, Anthony Michaels-Moore is an engaging and more sympathetic version of the unbending patriarch Giorgio Germont, and Valerie Reid’s dependable Annina completes a moving Act III quartet. While the large chorus are masterfully handled by Genevieve Ellis, with wicked moments of abandoned interaction, there are also times when chorus members appear self-conscious, uncomfortably exposed in this unforgivingly bare space.
This is a refreshing production of Verdi’s masterpiece, released of any cumbersome extra weight, be it repeated arias, large period costumes or bulky set trucks. The black emptiness of the stage makes for an unsettling and thought-provoking experience, exposing the fact that when it comes to female sexuality and prostitution, as Konwitschny writes: “We are scarcely more emancipated than people of Verdi’s own time.”
La Traviata is playing at the London Coliseum until 13 March. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.