La Traviata

La traviata [sung in an English translation by Stephen Clark]

Violetta – Emma Bell
Alfredo Germont – Dwayne Jones
Giorgio Germont – James Westman
Flora – Anne Marie Gibbons
Annina – Mary Lloyd-Davies
Dr Grenvil – Graeme Danby
Baron Douphol – Donald Maxwell
Viscount Gaston – Andrew Rees
Marquis – Robert Poulton
Joseph – Peter Kerr
Messenger – Michael Selby

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Jonathan Darlington

Conall Morrison – Director
David Bolger – Associate director / Choreographer
Francis O’Connor – Set design
Joan O’Clery – Costumes
Ben Ormerod – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 7 October, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

What to do with “La traviata”? Verdi’s ever-popular tragic opera with its multi-facetted heroine, well-known (and occasionally abused) tunes and arias, and its now not-so-shocking subject matter is often mounted by the world’s opera houses as a sure-fire box-office draw. Cynically one might suggest that all too often it is presented as a means of ensuring a guaranteed income rather than delivering something to really write home about in terms of a dramatic experience.

Elements of this staging occasionally inclined one’s view towards the cynical, and would have done more so were it not for a stunningly original and engaging portrayal of the title role by Emma Bell, who simply swept all before her. She might not be thought to have the ‘ideal’ Violetta voice – for a relatively young singer she has a big full sound that is robustly healthy in timbre which might not be considered appropriate. However, what it also has is a plangency that gets straight to the heart of this character. She also has the vocal technique to shade in some accurate coloratura, and impressively controlled pianissimos and diminuendos on high notes. That she is also a very attractive lady, with a strong stage personality to boot, helps too and makes her one of the most engaging of Violettas for some time.

No shallow Violetta this either – this was a courtesan with a little more fire and self-awareness than normal. The duet with Giorgio Germont became the pivotal point of the drama it should be, as her character’s overall inner-strength and probity meets the rather bigoted demands of the older man, and which was acted very well by both Bell and James Westman. Another treasurable moment of this was Bell’s despairing rendition of ‘Addio del passato’ in the final act, which had all the stillness, soulfulness and desperation needed. The final hollow, almost gasping, quiet high notes that end each strophe were truly haunting – so much so that the audience of fellow consumptives actually stopped coughing for a while. So, a fascinating performance that saved the show.

There was another show-saver on the boards at this performance, the tenor Dwayne Jones, who stood in at short notice as Alfredo for the ailing Rhys Meirion. Whether he had had much rehearsal was not made clear in the pre-performance announcement, but even assuming he was the scheduled understudy this was a creditable performance that improved as it went along – and by the time he got to his final act ‘Parigi, o cara’ (more about the lack of Paris later on) he was singing in a lovely quiet mezza-voce that was very beautiful and felt. Earlier on he was a little shaky of intonation and somewhat stentorian in his delivery. His portrayal was engaging if without the spark or abandon of his heroine. For some reason his Act Two/Scene One ‘O mio rimorso, o infamia’ was cut. This made a dramatic mess of the gradual unfolding of the comings and goings of the act, which are not entirely credible anyway, and a mistake as the aria tells one much about the impetuousness and naivety of the character as well as allowing musical contrasts.

As Giorgio Germont the Canadian baritone James Westman suffered slightly from the recurrent problem of young Verdi baritones and basses in that they frequently have to play older men, and are often of an age or younger than their sons! Westman was a credible father figure, even if his ‘old’ make-up was a tad obvious! He sings nicely but the voice perhaps lacks the smooth and focussed tone and a more bass-baritone timbre that the part ideally requires. His words were crystal clear which made one realise how irritating surtitles are for operas in English when they then provide a text that is not actually being sung!

In the smaller roles some excellent cameos were evident, some from newcomers and some from familiar faces – indication one hopes that ENO is attempting to re-build the sort of ensemble it used to have about 10-15 years ago. Mary Lloyd-Davies was a suitably concerned Annina, and Donald Maxwell as a suitably pompous Baron Douphol; both made their mark as singers of experience. Amongst the younger members were Anne Marie Gibbons who gave a well-sung if rather unsmiling account of Flora; Andrew Rees as a busybody Gaston, and Graeme Danby, a singer who should be seen and heard in larger parts, as a humane doctor. The chorus was in fine fettle.

Musically this was a strong account of the score and Jonathan Darlington led the ENO Orchestra though a reading that was varied in pace, supportive to the singers and dramatic as the need arose. I particularly liked Darlington’s handling of the last act, which had genuine pathos in it and was characterised by some soulful string playing and plaintive woodwinds. The last few bars, taken at a real lick and at impressive forte, were very exciting and perfectly matched Bell’s portrayal of Violetta’s demise.

The settings and costumes were pleasant to look at and the sets were effectively lit – but to transpose the action to Dublin and the surrounding countryside in the late-Victorian era seemed something of a vanity as it really added little to what one knew about the piece. As Adrian Mourby pointed out in his programme article Violetta’s story could be played out in any great city of that period. So simply adding a Catholic/Protestant rivalry dimension into the plot (the Germonts being Catholic and by inference Violetta, the Baron and other members of their society Protestant) contributed only a very artificial divide between the principal characters and certainly did not illuminate the drama with any additional point. It simply smacked of change for change’s sake: the fact that you could easily remove all these references from the translation and remain with an entirely intact “La traviata” gives the game away.

Be that as it may, this was an enjoyable evening, not least as Emma Bell had so much to tell us about the title role.

  • The first night was 27 September
  • Further performances on 10, 13, 19 & 27 October at 7.30; 21 October at 6.30; and 1, 3, 10 & 16 November at 7.30
  • Linda Richardson sings the title role and Phillip Thomas conducts on 19 October and for all the November performances
  • Box Office: 0870 145 1700
  • English National Opera

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