La Traviata, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2015

At the start of this production there is nothing on stage but a plain chair, and in the final scene, isolated from Annina, Dr. Grenvil, Germont, and even Alfredo, who leaves the stage to join the others in the auditorium, Violetta sits on it, alone. Finally she recedes into darkness beyond the back of the stage, passing on to the next world and leaving behind the emotional pain that seared the end of her brief life.

Violetta at the Act I party, all images ENO/ Donald Cooper

Violetta at the Act I party, all images ENO/ Donald Cooper

The arc of this production works well and as the Violetta, Elizabeth Zharoff was entirely convincing. The superb vocal power and nuance she gave to the role through all three acts — united here without intermission — particularly her ‘Love me, Alfredo’ (Amami Alfredo) in Act II, was wonderfully gripping. So good that I wish I could hear her do it immediately all over again.

Germont and Violetta

Germont and Violetta

As Alfredo, Ben Johnson sang with terrific warmth of tone (no wonder he won the Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013), and as Germont, Anthony Michaels-Moore repeated the superb performance he gave at the opening of this production in 2013.

One tends to see Traviata with elaborate nineteenth century sets, but Peter Konwitschny’s minimalist staging (revived by Mika Blauensteiner) in a modern setting is compelling. Its clarity helps bring out the pathos of Violetta’s world and the emotional confusion that strikes her. It even includes Germont’s daughter, whose sympathy with Violetta helps the father wonder what on earth he’s doing. This added tension, to say nothing of Violetta’s potential suicide with the gun actually going off, works well, though I’m not convinced by the fact that the daughter is a young teenager, and even less by the portrayal of Alfredo as a bookish nerd in a pullover. Being an antithesis to the Hooray Henrys in the party scenes is fine, but I’m discomfited by the lack of physical presence — it can’t all be in the mind.

Alfredo arrives before Violetta's death

Alfredo arrives before Violetta’s death

Yet the sense of Violetta’s distancing herself from the party world is achieved well — I loved her three different wigs and the duet at the end of Act I with Alfredo in the auditorium and a harp playing in one of the stage boxes. Excellent musical direction from Roland Böer, and fine supporting roles from Clare Presland as a dramatic Flora, Martin Lamb (Dr. Grenvil), Valerie Reid (Annina), and Paul Sheehan was a delight in his small cameo as the messenger in Act II.

Of course the main attraction here is American soprano Elizabeth Zharoff, who from Act I and her ‘heartbeat of creation’ aria to the final moments of her life conveys the beating heart of Verdi’s tragic heroine.

Performances continue on various dates until March 13 — for details click here.

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