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)
Photo: Getty
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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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