Initially premiered in Graz in 2011 and later incorporated into English National Opera’s repertoire in 2013, Peter Konwitschny’s rendition of Verdi’s “La Traviata” returns to the Coliseum after a notably protracted absence. In 2018, the company made an ill-fated attempt to replace it with a production by then Artistic Director Daniel Kramer, which received considerable backlash and was never revisited after its initial run. Similar to the revival of Jonathan Miller’s “Rigoletto,” another wise decision by ENO to restore a previously abandoned gem, Konwitschny’s interpretation represents a return to a more refined era.
Konwitschny, whose career ascended at the Berliner Ensemble in the 1970s, has long been recognized as one of the great mavericks of European music theatre. His version of “Traviata,” meticulously resurrected by Ruth Knight, is a revolutionary work characterized by intelligence and unflinching impact. Konwitschny distills the opera to its essential core, eliminating repetitions and cabalettas while excising the lengthy diversion at Flora’s party. There’s no intermission, intensifying the building tension to nearly unbearable levels at times. The drama unfolds in 1950s attire, set against a minimalist backdrop of multiple red curtains that sequentially unveil new emotional landscapes until death becomes an inexorable conclusion, marked by a final black curtain.
Nicole Chevalier’s portrayal of Violetta poignantly illustrates her victimization, not just by the bourgeois conventions represented by Roland Wood’s domineering Germont, but also by the voyeuristic cruelty of her demimonde associates who mock her relationship with the bookish Alfredo, played by Jose Simerilla Romero, from the very beginning. By the end, the audience shares Konwitschny’s absolute disdain for this despicable crew. While there are some deviations from the source material, such as Violetta contemplating suicide during her duet with Germont, a departure from the original text and score, and Konwitschny’s tendency to have the cast move into the auditorium, causing occasional balance issues, the production remains a compelling and potent interpretation.
The performances are equally impressive. Nicole Chevalier, a talented vocal performer who compensates for occasionally approaching high notes from below, delivers a rendition filled with dramatic immediacy, effectively conveying Violetta’s oscillation between love and despair. Her portrayal of the fleeting but cruel elation sparked by Alfredo’s return in the final scene is profoundly moving. Jose Simerilla Romero impresses with his handsome, impassioned vocals and exquisite dynamic nuances, while Roland Wood aptly embodies an imperious Germont, skillfully capturing the physical and emotional violence that Konwitschny believes lies beneath Germont’s moral sternness.
The opera benefits from the skillful conducting of Richard Farnes, who delves deep into its emotional terrain and displays a remarkable understanding of its dramatic pacing. Both the orchestral performance and choral singing are simply outstanding. It is genuinely tragic that ENO’s superb orchestra and chorus face imminent cuts and job losses.
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