Magazine article The Spectator

Unmoved by Violetta

Magazine article The Spectator

Unmoved by Violetta

Article excerpt

La Traviata Royal Opera House Roberto Devereux Opera Holland Park

The Royal Opera's press and marketing departments, normally no slouches when it comes to alliterative vulgarities, have missed a golden opportunity. With Berg's Lulu drawing thin houses, getting thinner as the evening proceeds, alternating with La Traviata, Renee Fleming starring, and a packed house, more smartly dressed than for anything else this season, why did they resist calling the pair 'Tragic Tarts' and even selling a two-for-one specially priced deal? Was it just a coincidence, or purely subconscious planning, that opera's two most celebrated sex workers were there to be compared and contrasted? Perhaps next time round they can swap sets, with Traviata effortlessly surviving the minimalism of the new Lulu, while that would fit snugly into the now rather tired designs of Bob Crowley, and gain some of the atmosphere that it desperately needs.

Last time round, I found the Royal Opera's Traviata the most moving I had seen, thanks to Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann.

This time I reverted to my default position on the opera, which is one of resentment that Violetta capitulates to the dreadful Germont pere and agrees to leave Alfredo, who anyway should put one and one together and work out what has been going on.

Fleming is not a particularly individual performer, rather the characters she creates are compounds of other readings; there is a lack of spontaneity and identification. Her voice has lost much of its bloom, too, and she produced hard, edgy tone, though she produced a miraculously good trill in her Act I aria.

She received little help from the Alfredo of Joseph Calleja, a performer whose high reputation bewilders me. He has a continuous quick vibrato, which gives him little chance to vary the expressive force of what he is singing, and suggests that he is perpetually petulant. Nor is he anything of an actor: he lumbers round the stage, and one could see why his father gave way to a sudden urge to give him a good push and send him sprawling, though that is not how one expects that pillar of rectitude to behave.

Thomas Hampson was born to sing this role, and does so very finely, in a voice that time has only enriched. Germont's appalling bullying of Violetta was delivered in the silkiest of tones. It was hardly his fault that his lethal aria seemed even longer than usual. The conductor Antonio Pappano was in one of his push-and-pull moods, with very fast tempi giving place to funereal ones, and hushed tones rudely interrupted with sledgehammer attacks on chords that should merely punctuate the singing. …

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