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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Why divided Brussels is the perfect hideout for jihadists

Counterterrorism requires on-the-ground policing in tandem with centralised control. Belgium’s fragmented political set-up is not conducive.

In Belgium, Santa Claus comes to town early. Children get their presents on 6 December, so that, on Christmas Eve, parents and grandparents can devote themselves single-mindedly to eating and drinking.

Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, arrives, logically enough, on the feast day of St Nicholas. He is dressed in the cope and mitre of a bishop rather than the fur-trimmed flannel of his anglophone counterpart and has come, not from the North Pole, but from Spain (a throwback to the Spanish Netherlands).

This year, however, there is no telling if St Nicholas will be allowed in or instead kept in a holding bay at Antwerp docks. And, if he does get through, will anyone be around to greet him? Last Saturday, Brussels was put into a state of suspended animation. In the days after the Paris atrocities, connections had been established between the perpetrators and the Brussels district of Molenbeek, but a series of raids had failed to locate Salah Abdeslam, who, it was believed, had escaped from Paris and headed to Brussels.

In response to a warning of a “very serious and imminent” threat, the city was subjected to what Twitter calls #LockdownBrussels. Soldiers patrolled the streets. Armoured vehicles parked outside train stations and central squares. Markets, sports fixtures and concerts were cancelled. The Metro was stopped and bars were instructed to close early.

For the most part, residents greeted the developments with their customary phlegmatic good humour, comforting themselves that the weather was so bad it was good to stay indoors. But when the government announced that public transport, schools and kindergartens would not open on Monday, grumbling intensified. How long could this departure from normality be sustained? On Monday, having chaired the national security council, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, announced that the security threat level would be maintained for another week but public transport, schools and other public buildings would be reopened progressively from Wednesday, once defences were in place.

Before the lockdown, I made myself unpopular with the locals by writing that Belgium’s political set-up is not conducive to counterterrorism, which requires good on-the-ground policing joined to centralised, specialist expertise. Beset with linguistic and territorial divisions between the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia) – a roughly 60-40 split – the political class embarked more than 40 years ago on successive waves of decentralisation, weakening the federal government, pushing responsibility and money down to the regions but also to the provinces and 589 communes (units of local government). In 1989, Brussels became a stand-alone bilingual region between Flanders and Wallonia, a point of uneasy stalemate: West Berlin in Belgium’s linguistic cold war.

Although Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Dutch speakers are outnumbered by French speakers and by the large ethnic minorities from North Africa and Turkey. (Before Wallonia’s coal and steel industries declined in the 1960s and 1970s, companies encouraged migration from the Mediterranean basin.) Most Dutch speakers who work in Brussels commute from outside and so pay their taxes elsewhere. The division of federal income between the regions is fiercely contested. To make matters worse, this city of only 1.2 million is subdivided into 19 uneven communes. Their populations vary from 21,000 to 175,000 and their size from little more than a square kilometre, in St Josse and Koekelberg, to 23 square kilometres in the leafy Uccle – home to so many Parisians escaping the high wealth taxes of France.

Some town halls provide efficient services; others have become bywords for mismanagement and worse. Above them, the regional government, weakened by factionalism between and within language groups, is incapable of imposing uniformity. It was no surprise, then, to see confusion and disunity under lockdown: mixed messages from mayors and ministers over whether public crèches would be open, how many terrorists were at large and when the Metro might reopen. Brussels residents are, however, for the most part tolerant and resourceful.

Economic and security logic might suggest that, if and when the threat subsides, Belgium would address dysfunctions in Brussels. Sadly, they are hardwired into the Belgian political settlement of the past half-century. Even Santa Claus would be hard-pressed to find a way out. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State