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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis