This is one of those occasions when no one can say they weren't warned. The advance publicity is careful to point out that the opera has been cut (something one feels so many current opera directors frequently yearn to do). The programme is even more explicit, Konwitschny having written his own version of the synopsis. It includes such memorable declarations as “he is a socially awkward bookworm” (Alfredo) and (of the conclusion of Act One) “In the midst of her philosophical and at the same time erotic reflections, Alfredo again points the finger of blame, whereupon she flounces off....” I can think of nothing in the text which suggests this of Alfredo, and I have clearly been utterly mistaken in previously thinking that the end of Act One sees Alfredo essentially pleading with her to trust in his love for her. The translation is not the one that I am perhaps overly familiar with from the classic Charles Mackerras recording and if I had time and a native Italian speaker to hand I should very much like their opinion on it. I strongly suspect it was being messed around with to fit Konwitschny's ideas about what the piece is about.
We'll come back to some of those a bit later, but a word must first be said about the performance's one outstanding feature: Corinne Winters's Violetta. I cannot remember a recent occasion where I have heard this kind of role performed so superbly at the Coliseum. Vocally she is really outstanding. Unfortunately there is a resultant problem – which is that the emotional richness of her musical portrayal only makes more obvious the emotional emptiness of the production in which she is stranded. Of the other two key roles, Ben Johnson makes a manful attempt at Alfredo but can't quite match Winters. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Germont pere growls his way through the part (with the occasional swoop) and I would have wished for a little more variation in tone and volume. But overall they are solid enough. The minor roles are well sung, and the ENO Chorus is in excellent voice. I had grave misgivings in advance about Michael Hofstetter's conducting after hearing him butcher Bach in Edinburgh a few years ago, but he is like other things solid enough, although there were places where I thought his tempi too slow (most conspicuously in Germont pere's great aria pleading with Alfredo to return home).
Overall, musically, this packs a lot of emotional punch. The trouble is that the staging packs none. Konwitschny's most fundamental error in my view is that he appears not to believe in the love between Violetta and Alfredo. Thus he has Alfredo being pushed into declaring that he loves Violetta in Act One, and also makes that classic decision of modern opera directors that the lover should go nowhere near his dying beloved at the end. The problem with this is very very simple –the music is consistently telling completely the opposite story. Konwitschny also manages to make a nice mess of the marvellous confrontation between Violetta and Giorgio Germont – one of the emotional highpoints of the piece. Readers may recall that Germont pere claims that his daughter will not be able to marry unless Violetta and Alfredo's liaison is broken off. Now up to a point I can see that you could make a case that he is lying, but it seems to me that Violetta has to believe it otherwise why on earth does she agree to the sacrifice. And it is frankly impossible to understand why she believes it when a pig-tailed daughter far too young for marriage is being paraded around the stage by Germont. The other major error is a movement one. At the end of Acts One and Four everybody except Violetta is placed in the Stalls Aisles. This in itself is inoffensive (if ineffective), but when you start having Alfredo scrambling his way down a full front row as Violetta is dying on stage it becomes ridiculous.
Beyond this there is a certain level of interest to be had from spotting Konwitschny's points. Thus we have a chorus member collapsing on a chair at the beginning while the rest ignore him, the chorus rushing in in Act Three all clutching their dining cutlery (yes, I get it, they're ravenous swine), and the endless curtains (according to David Nice on the Arts Desk they were supposed to represent “the characters' constriction or emancipation” - couldn't see it myself). It's not that, apart from the curtains, you can't find roots for these elements in the text but it all seemed a bit pointless to me.
Final verdict? Corinne Winters is clearly a major talent and I shall hope to hear her again soon. If Konwitschny and Marthaler are the best that German opera direction has to offer then the situation over there is clearly pretty dire and the less we see of them over here the better I shall like it. And the Coliseum? The management can probably breathe a sigh of relief in that this is not so awful a production that it can't be revived. But if it should be revived it will unquestionably happen without my being in the audience.