Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Francesco Maria Pique (from Alexandre Dumas Fils’ play La Dame aux Camelias)
Director: Richard Eyre (stage) / Rhodri Huw (screen)
The most performed opera in the world, La Traviata boasts a unique place in the cultural landscape. The story of doomed courtesan Violetta, and her lover Alfredo, is played out against Verdi’s lushly romantic score. It’s not only an audience favourite, it’s a perfect introduction if you’re new to opera.
We meet Violetta Valery (played by star soprano Renee Fleming) – a courtesan in nineteenth-century Paris. Holding court with the Parisian social elite, Violetta is the centre of attention. She is followed by admirers, but bats them playfully away. It suddenly becomes clear that her lack of interest is not Valery hedging her bets – nearly collapsing and struggling for air, Violetta is gravely ill and on borrowed time.
She then meets Alfredo Germont (Joseph Calleja) – a bookish, idealistic man out of place in the piranha pit that is Parisian high society. Immediately taken with Violetta, he pleads his case. He knows she is unwell – he wants to look after her, cherish her. Love could be what she needs. As Alfredo persuades Violetta to ditch Paris, they sing hopefully of a life spent together. The music soars, and Fleming’s voice with it, but we know that Violetta is growing weaker. The dream is already fading.
The plot takes a cruel turn, as Alfredo’s father turns up at their door. Finding Violetta alone, Giorgio (an excellent Thomas Hampson) demands she end her relationship with his son. The hypocrisy of Parisian society intrudes: Alfredo’s sister is ready to marry her boyfriend. But he is from a good family, and Alfredo’s connection with Violetta will break off the engagement. He pleads with Violetta to leave Alfredo, and do it quickly. Violetta makes the sacrifice and flees with her maid back to Paris. On discovering what his father has done, Alfredo searches for the dying Violetta, hoping it is not too late.
Performed by Fleming as she turned 50, this Violetta is not a coquettish girl enjoying her first Parisian season. Experienced, but growing weary of the same faces, the same exhausting evenings, the charm of Alfredo (a suitably boyish Calleja) hints at an escape. The dynamic between Fleming and Calleja is played to maximum effect. Their chemistry is natural and effortless, and you root for them all the more.
Director Richard Eyre, with his experience of running the National Theatre, brings a theatrical sensibility into this opera world. Merging La Traviata’s literary roots with 5-star performances, we are given a naturalistic treatment of Verdi’s tragic opera. The downfall of Violetta, based on the real-life story of courtesan Marie Duplessis, reads like a Flaubert novel. Risking it all for love. You can’t help but feel that Emma Bovary would understand Violetta’s predicament all too well.
The result of this approach is that the opera is clear-eyed in its story-telling. The scenes are framed like a giant narrative painting: it’s all going on, but you know exactly where the heart of the story lies. As the Parisians whisper gossip across gaming tables, this is a lavish production with no detail overlooked. It is an advantage of online streaming that the sets and beautifully-observed costumes are not missed. You really get to appreciate the work it takes to mount a production of this standard.
While many will watch this production for Fleming’s performance – and with good reason, she is astonishing in this role – over a decade on, this La Traviata remains a must-see. Making the story of Violetta and Alfredo vivid and compelling, this is opera at its very best.
Available online here until Monday 8 June 2020