A novelty too far

An innovative production of "La traviata" rids the opera of its purpose, and heart

La traviata, English National Opera

Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera

Love is in the air in London’s opera houses during this Valentine’s week with two of the repertoire’s greatest romances – Verdi’s La traviata and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – appearing in new productions at English National Opera and the Royal Opera House respectively. Both are 19th-century tragedies, but while one captures all the tremulous unspokens and unfulfilled longings of the era at its best, the other smothers its passions under a shroud of misguided Brechtian alienation leaving just a bloodless corpse of a classic behind.

A traviata directed by Peter Konwitschny (a notorious leader among Germany’s regietheater or “director’s theatre” scene) was always going to make a statement, and was always going to involve distancing Verdi’s classic from the flummery of pastel-coloured romance and subjectivity in which it has been swaddled over the years. And why not? London has seen enough soft-focus Violettas and Alfredos on its opera stages to fuel swathes of fantasy escapism. Something a little more bracing was overdue.

But neither shocking, nor truly innovative, Konwitschny’s Weimar-vision of traviata is as tired as it is cold. In stripping out all the context and visual trappings of an era along with all traces of realism or intimacy the director has inadvertently carried the emotion out along with it.

Red, labial curtains part as the overture ends to reveal yet more curtains. We’re back in the meta-theatrical, post-modernist womb, complete with the obligatory cross-dressing waiters in lingerie. Placeless and timeless, dinner-suited chorus members haunt a wigged and white-faced Violetta, while Alfredo unaccountably becomes a geek in cardie and cords. None of this really matters however, because it’s only a foil to the real business of the curtains.

Violetta repeatedly (repeatedly) closes them, walling herself into the illusion of romantic fiction. Alfredo however wants to fling them open, to break  into realism and trade the confines of the stage for roaming about the Stalls. As a premise it’s neat enough, but nowhere near sufficiently substantive to carry a whole show, as it is expected to. The symbolist props of curtains and one lonely chair soon cease to support the drama, and instead obtrude themselves needlessly into it, snagging any feeling from the singers or flow for the orchestra.

All of which is made only more tragic by the excellence of the production musically. Conductor Michael Hofstetter sets things up with a delicate and presciently consumptive opening, which is forgotten once Corinne Winters’ fleshy-toned Violetta (technically impeccable but so unusually warm with it) enters the spotlight. Ben Johnson’s Alfredo is underpowered and not yet ready for a house of this size, but there’s nothing else much wrong with it, and he is anchored by the lived-in gravitas of Anthony Michaels-Moore as Germont. Konwitschny’s one felicity is his neat telescoping of the score into a continuous two hours music-drama. We lose the odd bit of chorus and the occasional verse of aria, but gain some serious pace, and a sense of momentum the opera can lack.

Proving that classic opera doesn’t have to be reactionary, Kasper Holten’s directing debut at his own Royal Opera offers all the psychological sensitivity that Konwitschny lacks. His Eugene Onegin becomes a memory-play, with the older Onegin and Tatyana watching helplessly as their doomed romance plays out in front of them. To reinforce this doubled consciousness Holten also casts his hero and heroine as both dancers and singers, allowing movement to fill the visual gaps where Tchaikovsky’s music speaks so eloquently. The letter scene in particular lives vividly in this treatment, allowing Krassimira Stoyanova to deliver the pure vocal emotion of her aria while drama is carried by the throbbing movements of Vigdis Hantze Olsen.

Mia Stensgaard’s sets are a baroque fantasy of windows and doorways – thresholds for a romance that exists in the liminal spaces between thought and action, emotion and regret, public and private life. They frame Holten’s stylised naturalism with easy elegance and the aid of Leo Warner’s evocative video designs.

While on opening night Robin Ticciati’s conducting was a problem, failing to assert personality on the score or control the power struggles between stage and pit, things will doubtless settle as the run progresses. His cast supplement any orchestral lack, with Elena Maximova’s authentically dark Russian mezzo bringing rare heft to Olga, and Pavol Breslik relishing the passionate purity of Lensky. Simon Keenlyside makes for a persuasive Onegin, stalking the stage with dandified self-consciousness, only to see his control eroded, collapsing with potent release into his final confrontation with Tatyana.

Revisionism and innovation take many forms, and sometimes the more delicate reworkings can yield the greater impact, using convention as a context on which to build and develop. Konwitschny’s traviata strips opera of all that makes it opera in the name of novelty. Since he replaces it with so little he can hardly be surprised when the result feels brittle and spectacularly purposeless. 

A scene from La traviata (Credit: ENO)
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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.