What makes an opera production “classic”? I ask this rhetorically, because, in an age when opera companies increasingly turn up their noses at endless revivals of old productions and hanker after dazzling new insights into the standard repertoire works, two of our opera companies have wheeled out fairly ancient audience favourites — Welsh National Opera’s 31-year-old Madam Butterfly, originally directed by Joachim Herz, and English National Opera’s only four years younger Rigoletto, in Jonathan Miller’s great 1950s New York mafioso staging — to set the box-office tills a-tinkling.
To most opera people, “classic” usually attaches itself to monumentally grand traditional stagings, such as the famous Luchino Visconti Don Carlos (1958) and Franco Zeffirelli Tosca (1964) at Covent Garden, but both the ENO and WNO “classics” were controversial in their time. In fact, neither production was particularly radical: Eleonore Kleiber’s Butterfly sets remain the most beautiful seen in my opera-going lifetime, and Miller’s updating and relocation of Rigoletto has worked well precisely because it is so faithful to the plot of the original — an updating that is also a perfect fit.
Among the younger generation of British directors, David McVicar is also a producer of “classics”, and his La traviata, first seen in Scotland last season and now new to the repertoire of the co-producing WNO, has the look of revivability. On the surface, it looks “traditional”, in that Tanya McCallin’s furnishings and costumes are firmly 19th century; although, like Visconti in his famous production for Maria Callas at La Scala, McVicar moves the action some four decades on from the “contem porary” period — 1850s — envisaged by Verdi and his librettist, Piave.
McVicar’s production is the living mausoleum of Violetta Valéry, played out entirely on her (symbolically enlarged) gravestone and swathed in black drapes. The few touches of colour make big statements: the hostess’s red camellia at the Act I festivities, or her scarlet and her friend’s pink one at Flora’s gambling party. McVicar subtly and brilliantly defines the nature of the Parisienne demimonde and its hypocrisy in his clear class delineation of the women, most slightly tarty grisettes, and the men, nearly all aristos. We are left in no doubt that this “half-world” is a place where rich men meet poorer women for a bit of extracurricular, but we don’t see it on stage. In a Calixto Bieito production, the knickerbockers might be at ankle level, with the chorus ladies doing it doggy style to the oompah-pah of Verdi’s party music. Even if this is essentially a traditional staging, it is full of personal McVicaresque touches — at the beginning of Act II, Alfredo sings his romance over the sleeping Violetta, naked in bed, suggesting their intimacy without vulgarity — and he clearly knows his Dumas. The prelude music plays to the opening scene of the novel, where the auctioneers are pricing the dead Violetta’s belongings.
With more vocally impressive principals, McVicar’s Traviata might be an instant classic, but the singing disappoints. The Greek soprano Myrto Papatanasiu might have been born to play the Lady of the Camellias — the raven hair, the almond face and ivory-to-grey complexion, the fragile figure — but her singing is brittle and steely in Act I and she’s taxed in Act II, even if she eventually gives a movingly sung Addio. Alfie Boe’s ardent, boyish Alfredo has everything except alluring italianita. Dario Solari’s Father Germont may have suave Latin looks and tone, but he’s a stiff, priggish bore, devoid of empathy. The best work comes from the excellent orchestra and chorus under Andrea Licata’s experienced, idiomatic baton.
At the Coliseum, Miller’s 1982 Rigoletto has lost some of its zing — the 2009 replacements for the old couple celebrating their anniversary at the Duke’s party can’t match the originals’ dancing pro wess and self-deprecating humour — but the post-deco sets, especially the Hopper-inspired Act III bar, still look terrific. Stephen Lord, an ENO debutant, brings atmospheric melodrama to Verdi’s astonishing score, and the cast is led by Anthony Michaels-Moore, singing the jester for the first time in his native land. What he lacks in Shakespearian terribilita, he compensates for with a glorious legato and superb diction: I doubt the music has been better sung in this production. As his nemesis, the Duke, the 25-year-old American tenor Michael Fabiano makes a confident and likeable UK debut, following his slightly older countryman, Stephen Costello, at Covent Garden a fortnight earlier. His instrument sounds darker and bigger, though not as polished, as Costello’s; and though he sang La donna e mobile winningly, I can’t help feeling he is a bit raw — and slightly pushed at the top of the range — for such a high-profile appearance. A few years singing Mozart on contract in a small German theatre might lay secure foundations for a golden future.
The Canadian Katherine Whyte plays a waif-like, sweet Gilda. Her smallish tone, marked intonation issues and innocence of consonants made her seem another of ENO’s less than essential North American imports, but she wasn’t terrible and didn’t spoil an enjoyable show.
Brindley Sherratt’s saturnine Sparafucile, Iain Paterson’s stentorian Monterone and Madeleine Shaw’s raunchy Maddalena demonstrated that ENO can still rely on classy British artists to give ballast to its ensemble.
(source: times online)