I had a rather buy day today. Mirinda had Book Group while I had a Presenters’ lunch with the Talking Newspaper. I made her a casserole for dinner then went off to the Maltings for a, supposedly, live streaming performance of an English National Opera production of La Traviata. We also managed to squeeze in a trip to the dump and two to the lock up to bring some more stuff home.
The Presenters’ Lunch was great. You never really get to see a lot of the presenters when you are one so it’s an excellent opportunity to catch up. In my case, it was doubly so, given my year off.
Of course we ate in a pub (the Fox at Lower Bourne) and I had ham, egg and chips. Actually, and to be completely accurate, they ran out of ham so I volunteered to have the gammon instead. Not that it made a lot of difference. It is the same magical animal, after all.
We all had a lovely chat (discussing Tony’s unimpressive cruise of the Azores, our extension, various readers we’d be happy to lose, etc) accompanied by beer and the wonderfully merry and helpful staff.
Then, at 6:45, I ventured out into the misty and very frail rain, and headed for the Maltings.
Before Christmas, we (Mirinda, Bob and I) went to see the Royal Ballet’s Alice in a live streaming event. It was fantastic. The only downside was the seats. Far from comfortable and responsible for adverse numbing, the seats are a reason not to go. At least with the Alice, we had an interval.
The production of La Traviata is a new version, directed and imagined by a German chap called Peter Konwitschny who has no idea what the Maltings seats can achieve given nearly two hours on them. In Konwitschny’s version, there is no interval, the action is continuous and relentless. In comfortable seats, this wouldn’t be a problem (though I did feel for the performers) but when you are forced to move your buttocks every few minutes to accommodate a lack of padding, it suddenly becomes almost unbearable.
Seats aside, the production was interesting on a number of levels. In order to reduce it to two hours, Konwtschny has used his red pen quite liberally throughout the opera, I think, to its detriment.
Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with cutting theatrical productions. There are times I wish there was a lot more of it. But, and this can be a very fine line, the red pen must be moved by expert fingers. And that was one big problem with La Traviata.
It’s the story of Violetta, a woman who devotes her life to absolute pleasure at the cost of her health. She is ill-used by the men in her life: the Baron, Alfredo, Alfredo’s horrid and self-centred dad…the list is quite long. As well as Violetta’s suffering and tragic end, we also need to see the effects of the men who treat her as a possession rather than a fellow human.
This version (courtesy of the red pen) weakened the audience’s impressions of the men and making it far more centred on Violetta. This had the effect of making it more her fault rather than the blame being shared. Perhaps this was intentional but, if so, it detracts for the original intent of the story itself.
Another thing I didn’t like was the continual use of curtains. Alfredo and Violetta spent far too much time opening and closing them. By the end when the curtains are imaginary and we should be thoroughly immersed in their tragic lives, they start going into a mime of closing the curtains. This was just silly, if you ask me, and merely took away from the beauty of the moment.
While I didn’t mind the minimalism of the set (there was a chair and a pile of books…that was it) I did think it limited the performers a bit. Perhaps that’s why they opened and closed the curtains so much.
My biggest criticism, however, has to be the end. Violetta dies of the consumption that has consumed her (like excess can consume us all). Just before her death she suddenly comes to life, telling us her pain has gone and that her body is once more strong. Then she dies. It is a wonderful moment full of pathos, tragedy and teary.
Konwitschny saw fit to deprive us of her death. He had Violetta walk out of the spotlight, vanishing into the darkness like a spirit at peace. While visually it was very effective, I fear that anyone who didn’t know the story would have been a bit confused. Did she die? What about everyone else? What happened next?
However, it shouldn’t be assumed that I didn’t enjoy it. The singing was superb. Elizabeth Zharoff (Violetta) in Uma Thurman wigs reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, sang beautifully, her face a treat of emotions, her lips a red slash of self loathing. Ben Johnson as Alfredo also sang beautifully. The two of them singing together was sublime.
While the rest of the cast (and there was a lot of them) were excellent, Alfredo’s father (Anthony Michaels-Moore) was perfectly pitched between the father who assumes what he does is for the good of his family when it’s actually for the good of himself and self-pity by the end…when it’s too late.
All in all, I enjoyed it…with reservations. When the curtain calls started I realised my eyes were dry. The last time I saw La Traviata (Opera North) I was crying by the end.