Glyndebourne’s engaging Traviata

4 Jun

“Did you think that ending was outrageous?” asked an excited American lady as I queued for coffee at the end of the performance of La traviata at Glyndebourne on 31 May.  I thought that she was referring to the moderately controversial ending of Tom Cairns’s production, where Violetta dies alone.  But no, it was to the end of the opera itself: that the woman, who was about the only one in the opera not at fault, should be the one who dies and ends up apologising for it.  She was right, of course, and it’s the reaction Verdi would have wanted. And I thought that it was great that a newcomer could react to an opera so freshly and intelligently, reminding me how easy it is to take this piece for granted.

I think it was also a tribute to Tom Cairns’s production that, while not being outstanding is, in fact, a very good, clear, thoughtful version of the opera.  It often happens that the second showing of a production here improves upon the first and this felt more settled and secure than in 2014.  If there are problems, I think it they are to do with Hildegard Bechtler’s set which feels strangely cluttered and ugly and with the modern setting: our social mores are very different today and there are occasions, particularly in the Germont/Violetta duet where this becomes naggingly worrying.

There was, pretty much, a new cast and a very, very strong one.  It’s perhaps worth noting the lesser roles that are so important in Traviata and which were cast from strength.  William Dazeley, for example, made the best Douphol that I’ve seen simply through his experience and authority (and he sang it very well, too): his acting and presence were crucial in creating the wider milieu and context.  Ditto Henry Waddington as Grenvil, creating the sympathetic outsider who is also part of the revelry (I loved him hastily hiding the evidence of a night on the tiles in Act III) and singing it really well.  The casting throughout, right to James Newby’s single line as the messenger at the end of the first scene of Act II – clearly, authoritatively delivered but presenting a character as well.  These included a vital, flirtatious Flora from Rihab Chaieb, an elegant Marchese from Daniel Shelvey and a passionately concerned Annina from Eliza Safian.  These, and the excellent chorus, clearly having a high old time with some really detailed characterisation and acting, reminded you that Glyndebourne really has the time to prepare things from scratch.

Kristina Mkhitaryan was the new Violetta.  She is rather special. She looks beautiful and elegant and she acts the part beautifully – you felt that she was the only one of the cast who really understood the implications of what was going on and she created a highly sympathetic, intelligent character.  Vocally, she sounded more comfortable in the conversations than in the show pieces: Ah fors’e lui better than Sempre libera.  I’ve heard individuals (Cotrubas, Miriciou) make more of some of the passages and present a more sparkling, emotional figure, but she was a very satisfying, vulnerable, striking Violetta and I’d like to hear her again.

Zach Borichevsky sang Alfredo on the tour in 2014.  He’s strikingly tall and provides just the right gauche, young, thoughtless, impulsive character.  I don’t think that I’ve seen a more convincingly acted Alfredo.  Vocally, he was stretched by the end of his cabaletta but, that apart, sounded good and sang as if he meant it.

Igor Golotavenko was the Germont.  It was a joy to hear this baritone again after the joys of Poliuto.  Off hand, I can’t think of another voice that sounds more “right” for this sort of role.  The sound is burnished, bronzed and seems to flow effortlessly.  His phrasing is thoughtful and, I don’t think I can recall anyone who has given me quite so much sheer pleasure from his singing in this role or the sheer glory of the sound.  I was less taken by his acting which didn’t really seem to have got into the role.  He did some nice things – suggesting the sexual attraction he also feels for Violetta and in trying to manage the relationship with his son but he made me realise what a very difficult role this is to put across convincingly these days.

Richard Farnes conducted, pacing the score very well indeed and accompanying the singers very thoughtfully.  Perhaps he focussed a little too much on the details but I enjoyed the way he brought ou, first the oboe and then the cellos in Dite alla giovene.  The LPO played very nicely – the clarinet as Violetta writes to Alfredo marvellously phrased.

This may not go down as one of Glyndebourne’s great, unforgettable occasions, but it was typical of what the place does well: a fresh, beautifully prepared evening with keen singers and musicians, giving a very, very good take on the opera.  And, if it brought out that reaction in a newcomer, that suggests that it got very close to complete success.

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