Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ 19th Century novel La Dame aux caméllias, Verdi’s beloved opera has returned to the Royal Opera House once again. Richard Eyre’s revered production is back, and will undoubtedly continue to delight and sadden new and returning audiences alike. The story follows Violetta Valéry (Ekaterina Bakanova), a famous and fashionable Parisienne courtesan, wildly popular with the city’s upper-class. When she falls ill, she continues to live her fast-paced lifestyle, entertaining her high-society clients. Upon being introduced to the gentlemanly Alfredo Germont (Atalla Ayan), he declares that he is in love with her. After an initial refusal, Violetta accepts his love and the pair begin an idyllic life in the countryside together. But as Violetta’s health deteriorates, and Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, interferes – class divide and societal expectations rear their ugly head. A well-known story with an even more familiar score, La Traviata is a classic.
Bakanova is undeniably the star of the show. Her voice, pure and clean, dips and rises above the orchestra. She exudes a simmering balance of gentility and intensity, weakness and strength. Her dramatization of Violetta is as brilliant and vibrant as her voice, and the emotion she injects into her arias, particularly Amami, Alfredo and the haunting Addio, del passato, is palpable. Ayan, in comparison, is less remarkable, as Bakanova is so mesmerising, but he is also a fine actor and an even better tenor. He is commanding and forthcoming as Alfredo, and perhaps with a little more warmth towards Violetta, the chemistry between the pair wouldn’t have felt as flat in the first act. However, their interactions improve in vigour and sincerity towards the end of the piece, and it becomes devastating to listen as they make plans in vain in Parigi, o cara at the end of the third act. Baritone Nicola Alaimo as Giorgio Germont sometimes goes unheard beneath the orchestra, while Doctor Grenvil (David Shipley) performs his few lines with surprising power and clarity.
Designer Bob Crowley’s set is simple and understated, and not at all overbearing. During the final act, the wide-open space and Parisian shutters, with peeling walls of washed-out grey make the perfect space for Violetta. The lighting design by Jean Kalman is stunning, from the ominous shadow cast over Giorgio during the second act, to Violetta’s apartment awash with blue light as silhouettes of carnival revellers are seen passing by outside.
La Traviata is so tragic it is almost painful, but in the most exquisite way. The tale of a fallen woman, struck by an incurable affliction in the prime of her life, is sure to pull at your heartstrings. If you’ve never been to the opera, as I hadn’t before seeing La Traviata, then I whole-heartedly recommend it. It’s grandiose, it’s a spectacle, and the cast and orchestra are obviously sublimely talented. Don’t be put off by the running time of three hours and forty-five minutes, as it’s all over far too quickly. This production of La Traviata is tender, heart-breaking, and simply beautiful.
La Traviata is playing at the Royal Opera House until July 4.
Photo: Tristram Kenton