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Hair of the dog?

09/07/2001 -  and 10, 12, 15, 20, 24, 28 September, 3, 5, 11, 13, 18, 20, 25 October
Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata
Sandra Ford (Violetta), Claire Weston (Flora), Nicholas Garrett (The Baron), Riccardo Simonetti (The Marquis), Graeme Danby (The Doctor), Fredrik Strid (The Viscount), John Hudson (Alfredo), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Annina), Garry Sutcliffe (Joseph), Ashley Holland (Germont), Roger Begley (Messenger)

ENO orchestra and chorus

Noel Davies (conductor), Steven Stead (revival director)

The ENO’s programme always mixes bums-on-seats reliability and high-risk adventure, with some of Jonathan Miller’s productions proving persistently reliable. The 2001-2002 season opened uncontroversially with Miller’s Second Empire Traviata, sung by regular ENO singers, and there seems to be nothing either to set the pulse racing or to distress the fragile until the spring. But if this Traviata is comfort opera, it isn‘t completely exactly what everyone expects: the passion and sentiment are there, but without much in the way of decorative glamour. And the singers’ performances never obscure the fact that their characters are conflicted ordinary people in the spotlight only for a moment because of their suffering. This is about as close as you’ll get to opera as classic serial, or soap for the high-minded, but what’s wrong with that really? La traviata is a classic, in most senses, and its origins is in a novella that is basically a heightened, melodramatized, version of life at a social notch or two lower than that of its target audience.

The music of Traviata isn’t quite as much of a struggle for today’s audiences as that of Il trovatore, though the two operas were written close together. Instead of putative real gypsies warbling away in bel canto, there is one staged chorus of demi-mondaines dressed as gypsies. Indeed, Noel Davies played down any hint of middle-Verdi oompah, except in the party choruses, and kept things subdued to match the watery green decor. The singers were supported, but they had to supply the drama themselves, which they generally did.

Sandra Ford, who seemed a touch wooden in Ernani and Trovatore, was a striking Violetta. Her singing had a few rough moments, but at expressive points, and she was at times very moving. She had a cryptic, vulnerable glamour strangely reminiscent of Judy Garland, and was definitely an ordinary working girl, though the George Sand trousers she wore in the first act tried to suggest a touch of intellectual bohemianism. John Hudson was a classically chunky Alfredo, not vocally perfect by any means but like Ford very expressive. Ashleigh Holland as Germont was thoroughly amiable throughout, never really sinister. His voice was very beautiful at times, making Germont’s music also extremely moving. The busy smaller roles were all well filled, with Rebecca de Pont Davies sympathetic as Annina, and the chorus partied in understated style.

All that understatement of course comes at a price. In a note in the programme, Nicholas Payne acknowledges a legacy from Stanley Howe who, with his partner Alan Spiers, ran a successful hairdressers. A part of Stanley Howe’s legacy has gone towards the wigs in this production, an appropriate and touching use. Nicholas Payne also takes the opportunity to ask others to consider a legacy to the ENO, which it’s difficult to object to since most people in the audience presumably regard the ENO as a good cause and worth supporting. But the slightly alarming number of performances of La traviata, which require such a substantial expenditure on wigs, -- there are more performances in the spring -- is described as being part of an "audience development initiative". There are also rather a lot of Bohèmes this season. You have to ask, fine as the ENO’s productions of the standards are, is increasing the number of performances really going to "develop" an audience? Wouldn’t it be better to admit (if you have to mention it at all) that the audience for Traviatas and Bohèmes knows exactly what it likes, and that it’s reasonable to give it more if it’s prepared to pay for it. It’s the risky stuff that this pays for that will put new bums on the Coliseum’s often excruciating seats if anything will. Or maybe that’s what the ENO management is really thinking but they want to be discreet about it.

H.E. Elsom



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