Sunday 4 June 2017

La Traviata at Glyndebourne, or, Making the Familiar Fresh

Note: This is a review of the performance on Sunday 28th May 2017.

Doing a rough calculation after this performance I reckon that I must have seen at least six different productions of this work in my opera going life. As the first opera I remember really connecting with it's close to my heart. But the last production I saw was the dismal ENO red curtain effort and, had it been solely up to me, I doubt I would have gone to this Glyndebourne run. Fortunately, a regular fixture in my summer calendar now is a trip with my partner and old friends now in East Sussex to Glyndebourne. This year our friends proposed seeing La Traviata. Thank goodness that they did. For this is a show that, for me, wiped the slate clean. I felt I was seeing this familiar work with a powerful freshness. On several occasions, it brought tears to my eyes.

Tom Cairns directs both thoughtfully and subtly. The sets are spare – a curved wall to the left, a smaller wall partially enclosing a bedroom space to the right, the bed itself and occasional other furnishings. There's just enough hint of gardens, open skies in Act 2 Scene 1, and otherwise we are in enclosed, often oppressive spaces. Cairns adds pointed dumbshow during the preludes – Violetta emerging into a circle of predatory men at the very start, preparing wearily to leave for Flora's party, lying asleep at the beginning of Act 3 while Annina (Eliza Safjan) weeps. On each occasion these scenes added intensity to the drama.

Elsewhere Cairns's handling of his personnel is detailed and intelligent – things we just don't see often enough in operatic stagings. He's consistently effective at creating those electric effects from stillness and small gestures. Among many heart-touching moments I would single out the slow change in Violetta's demeanour as she gives way to Alfredo's protestations of love in Act 1, the moment when they are reunited in Act 3, and the hopelessness of the watching Annina, waiting out of sight of the couple as they renew their love in that last scene. There are also fine suggestive points – the red cloak Violetta wears for Flora's party -in a sense obvious and yet not, the moment when Giorgio Germont almost kisses her, verging on becoming one of those opening scene men, the doctor arriving in Act 3 with a tell-tale party streamer hanging off his collar. Cairns is also excellent in the crowd scenes, giving them an oppressive and, in Act 2 Scene 2 really menacing feel.

Two other points are worthy of mention. Cairns enlarges Annina's role – turning her into a fairly constant attendant of and onlooker to her mistress's history. I found this very effective – she seemed to me, particularly in the final act, to be a bridge to our emotion as an audience – her grief is also ours. I did have just the slightest doubt about Cairns's decision at the very end. The stage empties of everyone except Violetta, who walks towards the back of the stage and, somewhat, into light. I think I can see the argument – she's at last free of all these eyes upon her, released – but I do think you lose just a little of the emotional punch – I confess I was thinking as much of the bereaved left behind in that lonely room – the more so because the earlier part of the scene has brought that bereavement out with such intensity. But it is a perfectly justifiable decision in relation to the text.

All this might have gone for much less, were the production not blessed with an outstanding Violetta in the form of Kristina Mkhitaryan. She sings and acts with absolute commitment and real passion from start to finish – it is, quite simply, an emotionally gripping performance. Igor Golovatenko's Giorgio Germont is heftily voiced, and similarly moving. Zach Borichevsky sang finely for Alfredo but could work a bit more on characterisation – he can be a bit stand and deliver and sometimes looked as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with his hands – but that said that does in an odd kind of way work for the hunky but not one feels very bright character – and he was very effective in Act 3. The supporting roles are all excellently characterised. And the Glyndebourne Chorus are in superb committed form vocally and dramatically. On the podium, Richard Farnes finds the vital dramatic intensity, while also allowing plenty of moments of beauty. The London Philharmonic fully responded.

This was an evening of opera at its best. Powerfully dramatic, emotionally moving, seeing a familiar work afresh. My advice is, forget ENO's upcoming third attempt to find a decent production, and get thee to Glyndebourne.

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