The audience said it all at the end of ENO's latest reworking of La Traviata: rapturous applause for the singers, boos for the director.
La Traviata is based on an Alexandre Dumas play and was the inspiration for Moulin Rouge (in other words, quite French). Violetta is a courtesan/prostitute/woman of questionable sexual ethics who knows she will die soon and commits herself to joy. But when an unlikely suitor in the form of bookish Alfredo manages to tame her heart, she retires to the country for a quiet life. Violetta is forced to give up her last chance of happiness in what turns out to be a tragic dilemma between what she wants and what she thinks she deserves, damned by society and God.
Acclaimed German director Peter Konwitschny trims Verdi's work into a one-act opera running at around two hours and thereby denying the audience an interval glass of wine — always a mistake, no wonder they booed. He also does away with opulent set, favouring instead some billowing curtains which blend with the plush Coliseum. He tries to justify this in the programme notes by waffling on about the complex square root of imaginary numbers. The reality is that characters try to storm off stage, but struggle to find the exit, singers get whacked in the face by surprise billowing, and they try to wrap themselves up in it as a concealment device, only to look like children playing hide and seek.
Other strange directorial choices include: swapping Alfredo's talked-about sister to a real 10 year old girl who gets dragged on stage and beaten; having the chorus scramble about the floor like Gollum, and waiting until Violetta's touching death scene to send Alfredo into the audience, stepping on some people's feet. The staging was so awkward — fall now; imagine you're pulling a curtain closed; just be a jostling crowd, they won't look at you — that you start to feel pity for Violetta in a whole new way.
This aside, the orchestra and singers are fantastic. Corinne Winters hits the infamous high note, surges with passion, and knows exactly when to draw the audience in with barely a whisper. If the idea of this production was to strip it back to it's core, then they should have gone even further and let Winters take to a bare stage in a smaller venue — she could still captivate.
It's is still a thrilling production, if you're willing to close your eyes — this version is sung in English, so that's worth a thought.