“I honestly do not have much appetite for reimagining classical masterpieces […]. Too much opera is juggled around needlessly” declared Lyric Opera’s artistic director Vivian Coates in an interview. In the production of La Traviata staged at the NCH he remained true to this and, even though the costumes belong to the 20th rather than the 19th century, this is in fact a substantially classic take on the work.
But the pitfalls of staging such a well known and well loved opera are plentiful, even with a traditional production. Too many great recordings fill your ears. What seems like a safe bet – the choice of possibly the most popular among popular operas – can easily become a minefield when it comes to pleasing the audience.
La Traviata is pure operatic dynamite; but it still needs ignition. For the whole first act the wick would stubbornly not be lightened. All of the visual and vocal elements mysteriously compounded in a lukewarm result.
Luckily things picked up right from the start of the second act (“Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!”) and then with the entrance of Charles Johnston as Giorgio Germont. The party scene – specular to the one in the first act – was a highlight. Here everything worked very well: the now sensibly monochrome costumes (as opposite to the multicoloured ones in the first act), the excellently executed chorus “Noi siamo zingarelle”, the more convincing scene between Violetta and Alfredo and the vehement chorus “Oh, infamia orribile tu commettesti!”. The third act was equally good and truly moving, and passed the melted-mascara test.
What about Violetta? Having listened for the first time to Claudia Boyle in a concert last July in Castletown House, I was delighted to hear that she was going to play in La Traviata (this is actually not her first time with Lyric Opera) and I had quite high expectations. The program of that concert was very varied, ranging from opera arias, to Schubert’s songs, to musical. Accompanied by the piano, she was excellent in every single piece. I was smitten by her voice, her vocal control, her acting abilities and her grace. She also sang on that occasion the long recitative and aria “E’ strano, e’ strano” and she left a very good impression.
I was therefore a bit taken aback by the different impression I had watching her singing in the whole opera and with an orchestra last Saturday. She certainly possesses a complete control of her instrument and displays effortless high pitches and brilliant coloratura; but, I believe, she lacks the dramatic weight and darker colour required by this – agreed, impossibly demanding – role.
On the other hand, even one of her distinctive features, her acting ability, here seemed to play against her: possibly the result of directorial choices, her performance felt, overall, between the overacted and the perfunctory. She is a great singer, no shadow of a doubt about it. But, to me, she was not Violetta for most of the night. That said, she sang a convincing “Addio, del passato”, her evening highlight for me.
Quite committed, in the role of Alfredo, seemed tenor Alexander James Edward, with his alluring warm timbre. At least two voices stood out among the secondary roles: first of all the rich mezzo of Mihaela Lorendana Chirvase as Flora, and then the bass-baritone of Matthew Mannion as Marchese D’Obigny. Who stole the show was Charles Johnston as Giorgio Germont, his strong Verdi baritone perfectly fulfilling the role and leaving almost nothing to be desired.
The reliable RTE Concert Orchestra was smartly directed by Timothy Burke, like shown, for instance, in the quietly played, heartrending but treacherous “Amami Alfredo” bit. The prelude to the third act felt very delicate but fell slightly flat, as if the ever soft strings conveyed the sadness of the approaching death but lacked the remaining emotional undertones in the score: the sudden joy, the short, untimely resurgence of hope, its final, tragic vanishing.
With any flaw the production may have had, it was an overall good show and we should not forget that, if it wasn’t for Lyric Opera and the passionate commitment of Vivian Coates, Dublin audiences could not experience a traditional, local production of a mainstream opera like La Traviata, and we should therefore be grateful for that.