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La Traviata

by on 23 March 2018

A Sense of an Ending

La Traviata

by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 13th April

Review by John O’Brien

The English National Opera is doing its best to shake off the idea of opera as posh and therefore only for toffs. It is reaching out to new audiences, especially younger and non-white. As a way of bringing such audiences to its home the Coliseum in St Martins Lane, I think Daniel Kramer’s new production of La Traviata ideal. It features sets with the wow factor by Lizzie Clachan, assured conducting from Leo McFall, the experience of Alan Opie singing Germont, the energy of Lukhanyo Moyake as Alfredo and above all the mesmerising Claudia Boyle as the doomed heroine Violetta Valery . So if you’re new to opera and want to find a way in, as it were, this is a good place to start.

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For me this production is all about opera’s best loved heroine Violetta Valery. Claudia Boyle brings her to life as earthy, erotic and eternal. Not surprisingly Violetta has made La Traviata the world’s most performed opera, the inspiration for films by Franco Zeffirelli, (as well as Pretty Woman and Moulin Rouge) and fiction from Turgenev’s On the Eve onwards. Why so?

Traviata 8

The answer lies in the glamour and mystique of youth, sex, beauty, love and death. La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) is a tragedy about the demise and death of a doomed young woman. She is a high class prostitute in Paris dying of consumption. Her tragedy is to find real love, but then give it up to conform to convention; and then when she finally overcomes convention and achieves freedom it is too late, she only has hours to live. It is this tragic cycle of love, loss and death that makes La Traviata so compelling. Disturbingly a key aspect is what today we call “heroin chic”. The glamour of illness and the erotic young woman. The nineteenth century version of “heroin chic” was TB (consumption), it was a malady laden with meaning. Sex and death, creativity and pathology were associated with this “white plague” (not for nothing is Violetta pale ) that decimated the young, lovely and talented, meting out a protracted doom as poignant as it was painful. The consumptive look also conveyed such a thrilling eroticism that it was an aphrodisiac. The disease was said to heighten feelings, especially erotic ones. The tubercular woman was bewitching in appearance, with her prominent eyes, pallid skin and the hectic flush of her hollow cheeks. And the disease supposedly triggered inner erotic cravings too. Put these elements together add Verdi’s music and you have a hit. And a hit it has been since its first performance on 6th March 1853 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice.

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Daniel Kramer’s production has much to savour. The party in Act 1 is a tour de force. A dazzling set with mirrors, roundabouts and rocking horses (we get the double entendre of riding !) and the drinking song (Brindisi) is one highlight. But for me the production gets it absolutely right in the finale: the graveyard scene. Here Violetta is digging her own grave. She is literally falling into death. I was reminded of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days who is buried up to her neck in sand. Indeed La Traviata starts with dazzling light in Act 1 and ends in darkness in Act 3. Much like Waiting for Godot, “They give birth astride of the grave light gleams an instant then all is darkness”.

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Brilliantly this production highlights the moment of spes phthisica (the false illusion of returning to life) and so Violetta sings “OH JOY!” in the grave: a supremely tragic irony and peripetia. Frank Kermode, the great literary critic’s most famous book was entitled The Sense of An Ending. To touch us all great art must have such a sense of an ending. Daniel Kramer’s marvellous production works precisely because it knows this and realises it triumphantly. As I say if you’re new to opera and have been put off, or intimidated, in the past by the snobs and the mystique, don’t be. The English National Opera belongs to all of us. Violetta is a prostitute. She is one of us.

John O’Brien
March 2018

Photography by Catherine Ashmore

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