Passionate subjectivity

La traviata, ENO, Coliseum

Artillery Row On Opera

Isn’t hypocrisy great? What’s your favourite kind? Living as we do at the highest of times for the sheer variety available, one of the greatest is surely “bellyaching about the hypocrisies of the past”, probably neck-and-neck with “bellyaching about the hypocrisies of others”. The arts are very strong on this, none more so than opera — custom-built for the job with nine-tenths of its content drawn from the locus and tempus classicus of deplorable badness, Europe between 1750 and 1920.

For Verdi’s time and milieu, opera and sex were the go-to double-standards fulcrum, with the Paris opera giving the lead in pimping out its dancing-girls to the richer punters. Verdi was enough of a teen-outrage-merchant (when it suited him) to realise that operatising Dumas’s Dame aux camélias would be a great way of taking a swipe at this world of sexual multiple standards. Opera directors still encourage us to tut disapprovingly along as the sob-story of the original tart with a heart unfolds, even though this sort of setup is perhaps a little dated.

At the time (1853), most commentary was along Telegraphy lines — how dare they glamourise this bloodsucking houri? — with hints of panic that one’s wives and daughters might be somehow encouraged to go on the game, or at least start enjoying sex. Basically everyone (apart from the largely female audience, I guess) was very strongly team Germont, the wowser papa of the Dumas-figure Alfredo, who whacks Violetta round the head with God and family and honour until she “agrees” to disappear from his son’s life: Germont the upright agent of this Magdalene’s redemption.

Suddenly, you are inside another person, feeling the world with their feelings

To put it mildly, that’s now rather a rare attitude, but then just about everything about this story feels pretty Stone Age. I suppose without all the tensions induced by their sexual weirdness, the Victorians wouldn’t have been able to build the world in that furious but unarguably efficient way. The only point of human interest that remains for us now is Violetta herself, and perhaps as a result we can see more clearly than ever what is actually important about this piece. The old East German radical director Peter Konwitschny’s 2013 production for English National Opera, revived here by Ruth Knight, takes things a step further, removing a good portion of the idiocies that opera required in the old days (all those mortifying party-scenes, e.g., though there’s still too much of that even here), shaving the running time by about 20 minutes and doing away with the interval, which seems to be popular with just about everyone.

The remarkable result is that you realise to what extent the opera is not only “about” Violetta, but actually is Violetta: she is in every bar of the music, in the same sort of way that Carmen pervades her own opera, written twenty years later. This is quite a fruitful byway in opera, the extent to which a character sharply different from the others is embodied in the entire colour and affect of the piece: think of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, as well as Puccini’s poor Butterfly and more. This passionate subjectivity, or passionate involvement by the creator in the fate of his creations, reaches its highest point in opera — producing the same kind of shock the letters of those epistolary novels of Richardson must have made on their first readers. Suddenly, you are inside another person, feeling the world with their feelings. Properly done, properly experienced, this is rare and uncanny.

It helps here that the conductor is Richard Farnes, long-time music director of Opera North until 2016 and a paragon of the role. Farnes is good at everything; he inhabits every musical idiom I’ve ever heard him conduct. From the first bar he locates the freightedness of this music, those etiolated high chords that return at Violetta’s death packed as full of nostalgia and out-of-reach happiness as one of those moments in Schubert where a distant door opens and strange tragic music drifts in from another world. The orchestral score of Traviata, wracked with pain and full of Violetta’s hopes and feverish excitement, is where her soul is to be found, and Farnes finds it here. Violetta often sings high above a spare and pause-filled accompaniment, before a clarinet or oboe comes to join her with a sympathy that reminds you of how Handel does it. Other characters and crowds butt in or pass through, but we are looking at the world through Violetta’s eyes from the first moment. Even when she’s not around, like the beginning of Act 2 when Alfredo congratulates himself on everything, it’s all about her.

It is a remarkable musical journey, from the awakening of her heart, Germont’s almost instantaneous appearance to put it on the rack, the appalling realisation that the only thing that matters has been taken away, the plaints and rages and heartbreaking sweetnesses of the last act. Violetta never gets to sing about her love until it has been crushed, by the way, a notable dramatic decision by Verdi.

The empty stage leaves nowhere for Violetta to go but into the darkness

Ten years ago, this role shot the soprano Corinne Winters to stardom, and this time we get another fast-rising American singer, Nicole Chevalier. You’ve never seen a singer more exposed, a kind of flayed sensibility where every emotion, every insult and shock and exhilaration, is registered in the most vivid detail. I suppose you couldn’t call it subtle, but neither is it overdone: there are no histrionics, no arm-waving or sobbing; just pure singing, judged and graduated to the last degree. This exposure is merely emphasised by Konwitschny’s staging, done with no more than a chair and receding sets of curtains that finally vanish to leave the stage huge, empty, black and nowhere for Violetta to go but into the darkness.

Konwitschny gives us a slice of more contemporary horror with a chorus of party-goers, both desperately attached like leeches to Violetta’s celebrity, and equally desperate for her destruction — see Britney, Amy, etc. It’s only fairly effective, in fact. The Argentinian tenor José Simerilla Romero is quite a find as poor silly Alfredo, too — this boy is blameless, really, just a bit vain and ignorant — with a nice easy, warm tone that only lacks a bit of heft. There is nothing fake about the love story or his ardour. Correctly, all opprobrium winds up with his father, bullishly sung by Roland Wood as the archetypal Victorian Dad, who finally (but too late, of course) has his blinkers removed.

As everyone knows, ENO is still strife-riven, with music director Martyn Brabbins storming out recently because of projected cuts to orchestra and chorus. I imagine the next government will revoke the amazingly vicious Arts Council death-sentence on the company — already commuted to notional exile somewhere in the North — but things remain turbid, with this season of repeats of second-greatest hits the enforced result. ENO is making the best of it, playing these revivals with great strength and conviction; it’s not going quietly. This reinvention of Traviata, removing all the decorative culinary fooflah that Verdi reluctantly put in to take people’s minds off the true point of the show, is a fierce reminder of the things we should be determined not to lose.

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