Magazine article The Spectator

Verve and Vitality

Magazine article The Spectator

Verve and Vitality

Article excerpt

Odd that La Traviata should have become a Christmas opera, the operatic equivalent, in fact, of The Nutcracker, to run in tandem with it until people feel it's time to get back to performing their cultural duties. Or perhaps it's not odd. If you are given a summary of the plot, it sounds as repulsive a work as Tosca, and morally speaking it seems to me worse, with Violetta conniving in her own fate, not only submitting to the blackmail of the unspeakable Germont pere, but then, when he has ensured her misery, asking him to bless her, thereby forfeiting all sympathy. But as so often in Verdi, the music is as irresistible as the drama is absurd. Critics often talk about his dark and pessimistic view of things, but if you played someone almost any of his operas until Simon Boccanegra they would get an impression of tremendous verve and vitality, which conveys a huge and healthy appetite for life, whatever lurid incidents may be happening on stage.

A startlingly naturalistic production of Traviata, with the genuine appurtenances of death by tuberculosis, is possible and has sometimes been attempted, but it must seem very incongruous. In the Royal Opera's programme book there are solemn-faced articles on the place of the prostitute in society, the sociology of disease, poverty in Paris, but they don't connect at all with what we see and hear, and I'm pleased they don't. Richard Eyre, the original producer, and Daniel Dooner, who is responsible for the current run, have taken the opera as a prima donna vehicle, making no more serious demands on thought or feeling than Garbo in Camille.

To make the evening a success on that level we would have needed a more invigorating conductor than Paolo Carignani; yet another example of the importing of a foreigner when there are innumerable home products who would do the job just as badly, and a considerable number who would do it far better. The dances at Flora's party, always a danger point in the score, if proceedings aren't to degenerate into low camp, were leaden; overall the impression was sluggish, and the singers could often be heard trying to move things along. Since it's now policy to perform every last repeat and cabaletta, that makes for a blowsily lengthy piece.

This was the debut of the Albanian Inva Mula, a wasp-waisted Violetta with a light voice, plenty of vigour but not much individuality. She was least successful in the moments of greatest poignancy, such as her interjections during the card game, and the last quarter-hour. …

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