Violetta is a reduction of Verdi’s La traviata, using only three characters: the doomed courtesan Violetta, her idealistic yet immature lover Alfredo, and – surprise! Alfredo’s mother. Yes, Germont père is exchanged by Opera Allegra for Germont mère; an eyecatching decision with a potential cascade of interesting effects on the all-important gender dynamics of this piece at Grimeborn. I set off to the Arcola full of excitement. What new things would I see? I was a little confused when I saw the librettist was still Piave – so, we weren’t getting any new words. Well, what would they do, then, to bring out those fresh and fascinating nuances from the inclusion of Alfredo’s mother?
The answer was: nothing. The part was unchanged (“Giorgio” simply became “Giorgia”), sadly miscast, and kept on stage pointlessly for most of the action. Our gruff, proud Provençal gent who learns humanity the hard way was transmuted into a weak, querulous irritating-mother-in-law figure with no influence over proceedings, and no presence to match her fellow principals. In La traviata, the clashing pressures of public versus private life should pound our protagonists towards misery and emotional enlightenment, via lust, gambling and consumption, but as this chamber version only shows three characters, we completely miss the glittering whirl of the convivial, cruel world which exploits and abandons Violetta. We are left with a rather flat story of an unwise love affair, paused briefly by the interference of a small-minded mother. If you know this opera well, you’ll enjoy Ben Leonard’s clean, springy tenor as Alfredo, but you will be amazed how poorly the opera functions as a dramatic piece when cut so savagely. If the opera is new to you, you get barely a sniff of the real thing, and if you find it long, boring and confusing, I’d sympathise: please don’t judge Verdi on this, as it’s not his fault. Worst of all, the much-vaunted ‘contemporary twist’ of the production never lands – the work simply hasn’t gone in to back it up.
Ashley Pearson’s revival direction feels remarkably outdated: characters sing in lumpen stillness, often without making eye contact with one another when confessing deep emotion, with only faint glimmers of natural expression occasionally breaking through their patchy acting, because his singers are left stranded by Pearson’s lack of ideas. Compounding the problem, Martin Berry’s staging is heavy-handed Merchant Ivory, with elaborate Alphonse Mucha-esque costumes, and no distinction made between gracious apartment, country hideaway or death scene garret. The narrative, already maimed, thus has no way left to express itself on stage. Opera Allegra only get away with it at all thanks to Verdi’s superb writing, which does all the hard work for them whenever they let it. Still, it is astonishing to find La traviata – the world’s most-performed opera – not functioning dramatically, or moving us emotionally. Uneven casting adds a brutal congé; Leonard’s pleasingly agile Alfredo doesn’t pair well with Loretta Hopkins’ vocally unwieldy Violetta, while Alison Thorman is completely, and unfairly, out of her depth on all fronts. As she approached “Di Provenza il mar,” I crossed my fingers – meanwhile, my toes curled.
I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to watch Violetta’s interview with Germont without crying; but, with such poor direction, it definitely is.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (29-31 July only)
Part of the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre