Opera is like marmite; you either love it or hate it. Personally I belong to the former category although a substantial part of my friends belong to the, I suspect more common, latter. Currently running at The Royal Opera House is Richard Eyre’s brilliant production of La Traviata, which is worth seeing for more reasons than being able to bask Netrebko as part of its cast. So even if you belong to the latter category, and in case you happen to have an unlikely spare afternoon where you aren’t employed in the Bod, in labs or coping with the numerous extra curriculars we all take on, do go and see it.
Although off to a slightly shaky start, Marina Poplavskaya soon impresses. The soprano, who secured the role as Violetta at the Met after Netrebko dropped out, delivers a believable performance that becomes tear-jerking without seeming overly sentimental. Alfredo, played by James Valenti, is excellent as the young and passionate poet, but the unlikely star turns out to be Leo Nucci as Germont, who is absolutely superb in the second act, and in the end attracted the most applause.
Verdi’s classic story is one of the few operas that works in a modern setting. This does not, however, alter the fact that Eyre’s grand production and Rob Crowley’s designs add something extra to an already exhilarating musical experience. The Movement Director Jane Gibson describes the creation as “a very classic production”, and has with good reason called the show “sumptuous”. This is also partly what makes the experience so intense. Verdi did an incredible job at capturing the opulence of Parisian life already in the 19th century, and the production captures and enhances the quality of the music. The audience is drawn into a world of colour, luxury and festivities; the champagne is flowing among crinolines and candelabras. Growing up accustomed to the Zeferelli version, the imagery remained familiar, as well as imposing for a stage production – it somehow manages to capture the lavishness that is necessary in order to make the story believable. Without it, it is hard to understand Violetta’s true loneliness in ‘the desert of Paris’. Her desperate situation and vulnerability is truly enhanced when put against the context of her lifestyle, a lifestyle which isn’t paid for by herself. She is, and will remain, at the mercy of the rich men in her surroundings. Her desperate attempt to break through is doomed as she herself concludes in the face of Germont’s demand, when she laments that whereas God forgives, men remain tough.
But what is that so fascinates people with this story? The fallen woman is a recurring theme from biblical times. Our obsession with ‘the good whore’ resounds throughout popular culture, from Dickens to Hollywood. It is no coincidence that Moulin Rouge is an almost exact replica of the popular opera. Try to find the Baron, the courtesan unwilling to fall in love, the young poet, the sacrifice; even the elephant love medley is there, as is the climactic scene when the young man unknowing of his lover’s sacrifice publicly humiliates her (with almost exactly the same wording). Maybe it is a slightly sadistic trait of humanity to cheer on the underdog, and especially to take pleasure in seeing this underdog claim the higher ground. Regardless, if you enjoy classical opera, this is definitely a must see. Viva Verdi!