A night at the opera: “La Traviata” at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The best presents to give are those that one can enjoy oneself. So when my wife had a somewhat significant birthday recently, I had little problem choosing what to get her: tickets for an evening at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, of course. That’s tickets, in the plural, as, quite naturally, she wouldn’t want to go on her own now, would she?

And the show was Verdi’s La Traviata. Her favourite opera, Verdi’s Don Carlos, would I suppose have been even better, but one can’t very well expect Royal Opera to schedule their season just to please us: La Traviata was playing at the time, and that was more than good enough.

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

It’s one of those works known as a “warhorse” – i.e. a very popular work that has possibly been revived more often than is good for it – often at the expense of less popular works that deserve a greater exposure to the public. This has, perhaps understandably, incurred the wrath of many seasoned opera-lovers: not another tired old revival, they moan, when we could have been seeing …. or …. instead! (Opera lovers can easily fill in those blanks, I’m sure.) I sympathise. I agree also that putting on the same piece so frequently often results in performances that are stale, routine, and tired. However, we are far from regular visitors to Covent Garden: it’s not that it’s prohibitively expensive, as is often claimed – usually by those who spend much more going to rock concerts or to West End musicals – but it’s expensive enough to make a night at the opera a rare treat rather than a regular occurrence. So no, we haven’t been over-exposed to the work, and neither are we jaded. And what’s more, we both like Verdi.

I suppose admitting to liking Verdi places one in many people’s books as a diehard musical conservative; as someone whose idea of good music is no more than a nice, comfortable tune to hum along to; as someone who dislikes all that horrible tuneless cacophony that passes for music these days; and so on, and so forth. I plead “not guilty” to all such charges. But I still love Verdi. Oh, I can recognise weaknesses: it’s not blind idolatry on my part (I reserve my blind idolatry only for Shakespeare). But these weaknesses are like the character flaws of a good friend: even if they annoy you from time to time, you’re prepared to put up with them because … well, because you’re friends. And Verdi has been like a good friend to me for several decades now. Even in many of his weaker works, he makes me feel certain things that I don’t feel with any other composer. And yes, I know, he has his detractors – some of whom are so learned in matters of music that I wouldn’t even think of entering into dispute with them. But he has, and has had, many great admirers also: Stravinsky, for instance, and Britten. So if my love of Verdi is indeed a lapse of taste on my part, I am at least in supremely good company.

I haven’t read the novel – La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas fils – on which the opera is based, although, if the Royal Opera programme notes are to be trusted, Verdi’s opera is very, very different from Dumas’ somewhat misogynistic novel. I suppose modern audiences can no longer feel the shock that Verdi’s first audiences must have felt on seeing as protagonist a courtesan – effectively, a prostitute – and, further, seeing her endowed with a tragic and even with a moral dignity. But the shock effect is not central to our appreciation of the work, so not much is lost on that score. The charge of sentimentality is more difficult to answer, but then again, that charge is always difficult to answer, since there appears to be no commonly agreed definition of the term. Generally, the term is applied to works that we feel we are intended to find emotionally moving, but don’t. But since I find La Traviata very moving indeed, I obviously cannot see it as “sentimental” – although it is not possible to argue against those who do.

At the heart of this work is one of Verdi’s finest scenes: the soprano-baritone duet, between Violetta and Giorgio Germont. Violetta, formerly a prostitute in the Parisian demi-monde, has, unexpectedly, found happiness with the young Alfredo. However, while frequenting the demi-monde is not particularly frowned upon, setting up a relationship with someone from that half-world is. And as a consequence, Alfredo’s family is viewed as tainted, and his younger sister is unable to marry. Of course, by our modern moral standards (in the Western world, at least), this is bizarre: but it usually doesn’t, I feel, require too great a leap of the imagination to imagine ourselves living in societies with very different moral codes: if it did, it would have been unlikely for so many people to be able to engage so readily with this work.

So now, Alfredo’s father enters the scene: he has come not to plead with Violetta, but to order her, to leave her son alone. He is, after all, a respectable citizen and she is a prostitute: he has every right to issue orders. But what happens when they meet is unexpected, and Verdi’s music – to my sensibilities, both beautiful and dramatically convincing – captures unerringly every facet of what passes between ex-prostitute and respectable citizen. First of all, she refuses to be browbeaten by him; and he, almost immediately, recognises in her a dignity of bearing that he had not expected. So instead of ordering her, he tries persuasion. He tells her of his beloved daughter, whose society marriage cannot go ahead because of her brother’s unfortunate attachment. Violetta’s immediate reaction is horror at the suggestion that she should leave Alfredo; but eventually, in music of the utmost poignancy, she agrees. I know that many see this as psychologically improbable: to me, however, it seems all too probable. She agrees to leave Alfredo not, I think, because Alfredo’s father convinces her: rather, it is because she convinces herself. He says nothing to her to add weight to his initial request: she, however, knowing what she has been, and, possibly, hating herself for having been so, feels increasingly unworthy to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness. Even without the music, this does not strike me either as improbable, or – as has also been claimed – as corny: and with that music, it is heart-rending. Does that make me a sentimental old sap? Fair enough – sentimental old sap I am.

The production, an old one directed by Richard Eyre, was traditional, but effective. I do not want to review the musical aspect, since I am not qualified to do so, but I could not wish it done better. Conductor Paul Wynne Jones paced the drama finely; and the supporting cast, including Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Simon Keenlyside as his father, was splendid. But this is really a soprano’s opera: it all stands or falls on the her performance. As Violetta, Ailyn Pérez was stunning. She looks the part, which always helps I suppose: she has movie star looks and a fine stage presence; and her singing and acting on the night left nothing to be desired. No doubt those who know this work more intimately than I do, and have seen and heard it in different performances, may find certain things to carp at: I can only say I didn’t. And neither did my wife, which, I suppose, is just as well: the tickets were a birthday treat, after all – even though I enjoyed her present every bit as much as she did. Just as well we both love Verdi!

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