First seen in Graz in 2011 and taken into English National Opera’s repertory two years later, Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata returns to the Coliseum for its second revival after what seems like an overlong absence. The company attempted to replace it in 2018 with a much disliked effort by its then artistic director Daniel Kramer, which was never seen again after its initial run. As with Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto, similarly restored after a misguided decision to scrap it, ENO has wisely reverted to its earlier, finer achievement.
Konwitschny, who first came to prominence at the Berliner Ensemble in the 1970s, has long been one of European music theatre’s great iconoclasts, and his Traviata, painstakingly revived by Ruth Knight, is a radical piece of work, intelligent and hard-hitting in equal measure. Konwitschny pares the opera down to its absolute essence, cutting repeats and cabalettas, and trimming out the lengthy divertissement at Flora’s party. There’s no interval (which means the gathering tensions reach almost excruciating levels at times), and the drama plays itself out in 1950s dress against a simple set of multiple red curtains that successively open on new emotional worlds until death becomes an inevitability and the final curtain is black.
Nicole Chevalier’s Violetta is the victim, tellingly, not only of the bourgeois codes of respectability embodied in Roland Wood’s bullying Germont, but also of the voyeuristic cruelty of her demimonde cronies, who ridicule her relationship with Jose Simerilla Romero’s bookish Alfredo from the outset: we really end up sharing Konwitschny’s utter contempt for this abominable crew by the end. There are lapses: the suggestion that Violetta contemplates suicide at one point during her duet with Germont has no foundation in text or score; and Konwitschny’s fondness, here as elsewhere, for despatching his cast into the auditorium on occasion, causes inevitable problems with balance. But this remains, nevertheless, a staging of considerable power.
There are some wonderful performances, too. A fine vocal actor, who compensates for a habit of sometimes approaching high notes from below with singing of considerable dramatic immediacy, Chevalier pushes herself to her limits to convey Violetta’s fluctuations between love and despair: the brief but cruel elation occasioned by Alfredo’s return in the final scene is heartbreakingly done. Simerilla Romero sounds handsome and ardent, his dynamic shading particularly beautiful, while Wood is suitably imperious, admirably capturing the physical and emotional violence that lurks, in Konwitschny’s view, behind Germont’s moral rigidity. The opera is greatly conducted by Richard Farnes, who digs deep into its emotional world and whose understanding of its dramatic pace is matched by few. Playing and choral singing are both simply outstanding: it is genuinely tragic that ENO’s excellent orchestra and chorus face cuts and job losses in the near future.
At London Coliseum until 12 November