It was Jack’s first opera. Well, for the sake of discretion I’ll call the new pal I made during the first interval at London’s Covent Garden, “Jack”. Actually, he IS called “Jack”. But, even if he is eventually fingered in these ID disclosure obsessed times, I’m sure Jack won’t mind.

Because Jack was fizzing with enthusiasm from his first live encounter with the operatic art form. Not a total fresher. He had done his homework. Watched La traviata online. Listened to Verdi’s tear-jerker time and again on CDs.

He was seeing with new eyes. Compared with the case-hardened operagoers surrounding him Jack was blown away by the beauty of his surroundings, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, supported mostly by taxpayers who don’t “do” opera. Thank you, taxpayers. 

We regulars tend to take the stunning ROH for granted. We must not. While hardly hallowed ground, it is a special place and as usual, we were sharing a special experience. Richard Eyre as Director, Maestra Keri-Lynn Wilson with baton, setting off Verdi’s musical fireworks. 

Bob Crowley, design director had provided a beautiful, but not overstated canvas against which Eyre’s and Revival Director, Bárbara Lluch’s well-schooled characters would play out their roles. 

I had gone because Wilson was conducting. I heard the Canadian conduct Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at New York’s Met last autumn, then Richard Strauss’ Salome in Houston this Spring. If she could bring true musicality and conjure beautiful sounds from these full-on, often atonal works, what would she do with the more naturally fluent Verdi favourite?

The answer was … plenty. Unprompted, Jack – who had a better view of the pit than I – observed that her heads-up engagement with cast and orchestra seemed total. Occasional eye-contact with the score only. And she was singing the words. Probably just as well, silently.

As I’ve noticed previously, Wilson was conducting within the opera, with total commitment, a lightness of touch and an ear for tempi and flow that made the whole work glitter. 

She brought to her Verdi interpretation the verve she brings to the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, one of the only good things to come out of a tragic war, which she first led across Europe and the United States in 2022. Look forward to this year’s autumn tour

La traviata is an opera founded on a theme breaking taboos at the time, still all too familiar today. Sexual exploitation. Based on the life of Marie Duplessis, in 1847 the most fashionable courtesan in Paris, the libretto by Francesco Maria Pave followed the plot of La Dame aux Camélias, the play by Alexandre Dumas Fils, based on her life.

Duplessis was a 19th century influencer. She certainly influenced her lover Franz Liszt, who wrote on her death, “Now that she is dead, I do not know what strange antique elegy vibrates in my heart at her memory”. Unsurprisingly, Liszt did not find himself a sole mourner at her funeral. 

Peel away the fashionable façade and Duplessis was a prostitute. Seduced on the Pont Neuf, while soliciting as an urchin, by a bag of frites offered by Figaro journalist Nestor Roqueplan, Marie Duplessis was built up by the press and dominated fashionable Paris society, whether promenading in the Bois de Boulogne or the bed of some marquis or other. 

Verdi’s mould-breaking presumption was to have the temerity to place the hypocrisy of exploitative French society bare. Violetta, La traviata’s tragic heroine, first appears in her pomp, dominating Paris society, seeks a true love with the besotted Alfredo, sells her belongings in secret to fund their country lifestyle – she is no longer “earning” – bows to the wishes of Alfredo’s father to give him up for the sake of Alfredo’s sister whose marriage is threatened by the scandal of a formal family association with a courtesan, returns to the protection of an aristo, Marquis D’Obigny, is struck down with tuberculosis and eventually reconciled to Albert, once more in poverty – only 20 Louis left – dying in his arms with Albert’s father acknowledging her as saintly for her self-sacrifice. 

Phew! No wonder La traviata is known as a “bums on seats” reliable house filler. Here’s a full synopsis, from the Met’s 2022 production. Oddly, ROH does not offer a synopsis online. 

Richard Eyre is a legendary director, spanning the worlds of film, theatre and opera since 1967. This classic 1994 production never fails to impress. The designs are beautiful, in period, but restrained. Deep red suffuses the scenes in the ballroom and gambling salon. Violetta’s bedroom comes straight from the Carrie Johnson new school of nursery chic – all pastel, restrained patterns, plump cushions, not a roll of gold wallpaper in sight. Nor a tidily swaddled infant, thank goodness.

I think what makes Eyre’s production so engaging is that nothing gets in the way. It is also made plain from the outset that Violetta is ill. The die has been cast, making the tragedy of what follows more poignant.

He does not succumb to the humbug trick of having Alfredo’s father arrive accompanied by the silent and pathetic figure of the blighted sister. The moment when Alfredo insults Violetta by throwing the money he has won from her lover Marquis D’Obigny, is almost undramatic, so more chilling.

Finally, the closing scene when Violetta thinks she is recovering is artfully done. Clearly, Eyre had had his fill of prolonged death agonies in the Verdi/Puccini canon. Violetta runs, childlike, reinvigorated, round the bedroom, only to collapse, dead, into Alfredo’s arms. 

I hoped Jack had not been tricked into expecting a happy ending. The end of this opera can often be an anti-climax. Overdrawn out pathos. Eyre onstage and Wilson in the pit tightened the psychological spring until the final seconds – when it snapped. 

The cast was a mix of ROH regulars and Jette Parker Artists. A global programme funded by the Oak Foundation set up by the Parker family in the late 1990s. We have duty free shopping – the basis of the Parker dosh – to thank for the honour board of young artists who have graced the ROH’s Jette Parker Programme since 2001. 

In this production, Lithuanian mezzo-soprano, Gabrielė Kupšytė (Flora Bervoix), Korean baritone, Josef Jeongmeen Ahn (Baron Duphol), Scottish tenor, Michael Gibson (Gastone de Letorières) were all former Jette Parker Artists, were great exemplars of the training the programme offers.

Kristina Mkhitaryan, a Russian soprano, was Violetta, Armenian tenor, Liparit Avetisyan, Alfredo Germont, Portuguese baritone, Juan Jesús Rodríguez, Giorgio Germont – Alfredo’s father.

This was excellent casting. The role of the outraged, then supplicant father who is eventually entranced by Violetta’s sincerity and selflesness, was superbly executed. Giorgio is more important in the plot than the ostensible hero, his son Alfredo. The success or failure of the opera hinges on the Act II confrontation scene between the outraged father and Violetta, the assumed hardened courtesan. 

Violetta’s changed journey from that point to the death scene at which she is movingly acknowledged by Giorgio as his “daughter” is what makes this Verdi work the timeless classic it is. 

Valéry and Rodríguez travelled that road sensitively, the changing relationship drawing the audience in. The characterisation was perfect. Brilliant stuff. 

Jack will be back. He has already signed up for next season’s Rigoletto. One swallow makes no summer. One new convert to opera makes no new audience. But when a newcomer samples the reality of the ROH for the first time and leaves committed, there is hope. Opera can be for everyone. 

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