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)

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

Hydar Dewachi/Owen G. Parry
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Larry is Real: how One Direction fanfiction is inspiring the London art scene

“These fictions are an opportunity to create – for pure expression in their field.

Where does the boundary lie between fanfiction and art? It’s a question that has become more and more prominent as fanfiction’s influence over popular culture continues to rise. London-based artist and Central St Martin’s lecturer Owen G Parry argues that there is no boundary at all. His latest work explores the world of “Larry Stylinson”, that is, fanfiction and fanart that explore a sexual relationship between One Direction band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson.  

Showing as part of the Jerwood Gallery’s “Common Property” exhibition, Parry’s pieces include Larry Underwater Kiss, a digital silk print, Larry!Hiroglyfics, etched drawings of the couple on Perspex alongside the slogan ship everything, and Larry!Domestic: masks of Louis and Harry in pink containers, alongside a wearable pregnant belly marked with Harry’s tattoos. The exhibiton event included a live piece of performance art, featuring One Direction lookalikes kissing, hugging and undressing one another.

For Perry, these works are just one extension of an existing artistic sphere, exploring “the figure of the fan as an unassuming model for invention, mobilization and revolt”. He told the Telegraph that Larry shippers are “just presenting the normal ideals of a relationship, but actually it’s really subversive”.

“These fictions are an opportunity to create – for pure expression in their field. Fandom is a space where anything can happen. We might go back to a genuine passion in art.”

It’s an important sentiment: fanfiction writers and fanart creators, especially those working within fandoms like One Direction’s, are often young women who are intellectually and creatively dismissed. But fanfiction often provides a space for young artists who might be marginalised in the mainstream to create artwork that reflects their experiences, whether it be by racebending or reimagining characters in different power structures and dynamics.

Shipping is a key part of that, particularly for LGBTQ fans, something perhaps flattened in Perry’s statement, “Creating relationships: this is a method in fandom called ‘shipping’, which I’ve basically taken on and applied to my art practice [...] This whole installation is me ‘shipping’ materials and ideas, theories and passions.”

Of course, as long as fans have existed, fandoms of all shapes and sizes have engaged in shipping. But Larry is a particularly controversial one, because it involves playing with, and sometimes intruding upon, the lives of two real people. Larry shippers are infamous for their dedication to the ship and their insistence that it is a genuine conspiracy, rather than a fiction.

Theories usually rest on the idea that the band’s management Modest is forcing the band members to hide their sexuality and publically date women as beards, with some going as far as to suggest that the mother of Louis Tomlinson’s child, Briana Jungwirth, had a fake pregnancy. The first replies to any One Direction member’s social media posts is usually a variation of “larry” or #LarryIsReal.

Louis Tomlinson has been particularly outspoken about the ship, labelling it “bullshit” in a 2012 tweet, and reportedly saying, “it’s actually affecting the way me and Harry are in public”.

Bandmate Liam Payne called Larry shippers “absolutely nuts”, saying the theories drive him “insane”: “when you know the ins and outs of what is going on with people it's just annoying when it's so stupid. It becomes like a conspiracy or like a cult”. Zayn Malik added in an interview last year, “It’s not funny, and it still continues to be quite hard for them. They won’t naturally go put their arm around each other because they’re conscious of this thing that’s going on, which is not even true.” Some fans argue that the band members are visibly less close as a result.

Perhaps these internal criticisms and controversies miss the point. Perry sees Larry shipping as “a safe place to test out your sexuality, a fantasy space” for many young fans. As a community brimming with “passion and love” and rebellious creativity, perhaps fan-made art can have a positive impact on the art world as a whole.

All photographs by Hydar Dewachi. All artwork by Owen G Parry. Follow his fan-influenced work at fanriot.tumblr.com.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.