BWW Review: LA TRAVIATA, Royal Opera House
"If it's not broke, don't fix it!" Most clichés gain their status through being true, but that one is honoured in the breach as often as in its application, the desire to sell something new (even if it isn't really) as addictive to the vendor as it is to the buyer. Not always though.
"25 years of Richard Eyre's La Traviata" is emblazoned (in gold, no less) on the cast list and the programme compiles a Who's Who of opera stars who have sung the roles in that quarter century - it was staged here as recently as January after all!
So you've every right to expect something good, something slick, something that can fill hundreds of seats on wet Tuesday night a week before Christmas. And that's what you get.
Two natives of Yerevan (a city distant in every sense from Paris where the action takes place) lead the cast and both are wonderful actors as much as they are singers. Liparit Avetisyan convinces as the lovelorn Alfredo who fails to see that Violetta loves him even more than he suspects, until it's too late. His tenor never overpowers, but can move from mellow to strident at the drop of an insult.
But Violetta? This is her opera and so it's Hrachuhi Bassenz's too. At first, I thought she might look a little too old to play the courtesan who bewitched Parisian society, but talent wove its magic as the voice reached for those high notes and told her story as much through tone as through the libretto. Like all great operatic performances, one could look away from the surtitles, even from the stage, and know exactly the emotions conveyed.
The doomed lovers get excellent support from Jeremy White as the Marquis (he'd be in line for some #MeToo condemnation these days) and Simon Keenlyside as Alfredo's father, who sees, too late, that love is worth more than honour.
Bob Crowley's sets are a wonder to behold, gorgeously lit by Jean Kalman, the light golden in good times and starkly monochromatic as the consumption consumes our tart-with-a-heart. Quite how director of movement, Jane Gibson, avoids the dancers colliding in the spectacular salon scene, I don't know, but the matadors matadored and the gypsies did their exotic, sexy thing without a hitch. The chorus too (though possibly underused) were splendid when called upon.
You can pick your favourite moment (and everyone knows the paean to the joy of booze, "Libiamo ne' lieti calici", whether you've seen the opera or not) or luxuriate in the relentlessly beautiful music, Daniel Oren conducting the orchestra without much show, the playing seamlessly folding into the singing. Or maybe just recall those sets when the sun dips so soon over the horizon in the wintry days ahead.
But it's probably the escape element (always a trump card at the opera) that matters most to some of us right now. On the one hand we see a world of dissolute hedonism that leads to a disastrous conclusion when it butts up against more puritanical values. On the other, we sit in one of London's oldest theatres watching an Italian opera set in Paris, performed by a cast drawn from around the world, their passports of no consequence when they declare their talents. And so are we all enriched.
Photo Catherine Ashmore