When I was a lad, I often used to spend the money I earned selling biros at W.H.Smith in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre of a Saturday, on cheap seats at the ENO. You could sit in knee-numbing and precipitous discomfort at the back at the top for a quid, and my knees were more forgiving back then. I saw some wonderful productions, and had the pleasure - as an ingenue, and that you never get again - of seeing operas for the first time and not knowing what happens (though after a few, you do tend to get the gist): Carmen – stabbed at the bullfight; Tosca - splatted off the battlements; Gilda - trussed in a sack like a ham; Mimi – chilled to the marrow in her garret.
Those evenings, scrunched up in what were often sweltering conditions, started a love not only of opera, but of the ENO and The Coliseum, with its swagged plaster, fading velvet, and muscley golden gladiators. And one opera above all others made me want to go back again and again: La Traviata.
I can’t remember which year it was, it would have been the mid-late 1970s, and I recall nothing of the production, but I can remember who sang Violetta. It was the great Valerie Masterson, a soprano who epitomised everything that was great about opera sung in English at that time. In all the roles I saw her perform (and she was prolific) she excelled; but her Violetta was something else. She made me believe in the demi-monde, and in the struggle to decide between the immediate and transient pleasures of casual sex and fine wine and the enduring (but often less titillating) rewards of love and commitment. Masterson recognised that, as is often the case with nineteenth century opera, the story will only be truly experienced and affecting if the audience believes in the character of the protagonists. Without this, it’s just people in fancy dress singing pretty tunes until they die.
The first performance of La Traviata was at La Fenice in Venice, in 1853, where the audience were not entirely impressed, and reviews were mixed. The first production in England was three years later, in 1856, at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Concern about the theme, and its moral impropriety, resulted in the Church seeking to ban it and Queen Victoria staying away (though, apparently, allowing the music “words and all” to be performed at the Palace).
One hundred and sixty two years later, which is to say last night, I went to see it again at the ENO – with high expectations, after the last catastrophic production. And what a dog’s breakfast it was.
Good things: the orchestra, under the direction of Leo McFall, was sublime; the chorus, despite the embarassments they were forced to endure, sang beautifully; and Alan Opie as Giorgio Germont was very fine (as always). But almost everything else was a catastrophe.
In La Traviata, you have to believe that Violetta will give up everything that gives her life meaning, however meretricious and transient it may be, for Alfredo. You have to believe that when she sees him something fundamental shifts inside her, and that something deep and dangerous and terrible is going to happen. Verdi captures this in the music, which under the melodic perfection, has dark and foreboding undertones and harmonies. But here, on a set that was a mish-mash of children’s playground, Deco brothel, and gentleman’s club, peopled by gaudily dressed sado-masochists in basques and catalogue lingerie, it’s impossible to believe that she (played by Claudia Boyle) would see any interest in him (played by Lukhanyo Moyake), other than as a person whose labradoodle has just died might have interest in a stray cockapoo that had just happened to wander in. Dressed in a BHS non-iron shirt and brown tweed (to show us that he is a very different fellow from all these libidinous ne’er-do-wells, and that he is The Nice Bloke your mum would approve of), Alfredo simply comes across as dull, lumpy, and unattractive – not as the stable, masculine, confident man who could lure Violetta away from her beloved Paris to a life in the countryside.
But that’s what we are asked to believe; and in Act Two, there she is, improbably swaying backwards and forwards on a round bed hanging by wires from what one can only assume is the sky, while he picks plastic flowers and decides to plant a rose, for no obvious reason, in a patch of rucked astroturf. (The astroturf is at least dual purpose though because, after she’s agreed with Germont to give everything up for the sake of Alfredo’s tedious sister and the honour of his family, she gets the chance to wrap herself in it – you know, just to give the weeniest hint that she might, quite soon, be under the sod herself. This was a real low point.)
The final Act is the best of the three. We find Violetta in what looks like a shed that Compassion in World Farming would have something to say about, surrounded by stained mattresses, digging her own grave. For someone with advanced consumption, she’s got more energy than I have. Dig, fling; dig, fling. On and on she goes. This set at least captures the darkness – though it’s wrecked when Alfrepoodle / Cockado comes galumphing back and, not only dances on the pile of earth she’s spent so much time excavating (I’d have been furious), but convinces her that they should spend their reunion on all fours, nuzzling each other. Seriously
After having spent three hours watching a masterpiece be destroyed under Daniel Kramer’s dismal direction, there is, at least, the prospect of Violetta’s death to look forward to (and, for the first time I’ve see the opera, I suspect she was looking forward to it too). But no. Having had a moment of clarity, her strength returning one last time after experiencing the truth of love, of peace, and of redemption, and clearly influenced by the mid-air finale of Thelma and Louise, the curtain falls on Violetta grasping for the light, like Carol Ann in Poltergeist. And so, I suppose, we are meant to leave the theatre, wondering, “Perhaps she got better? I do hope so. They’d make such a lovely couple.” I left the theatre, but I didn’t think that. I left harbouring bad thoughts about Directors who only have one job, and screw that up. Carmen dies; Tosca dies; Gilda dies; Mimi dies; and Violetta dies too. That’s what opera is.
Verdict. Beautiful music; daft production.