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 new Gilmore Girls trailer is dated, weird, nostalgic and utterly brilliant

Except, of course, for the presence of Logan. I hate you, Logan.

When the date announcement trailer for Gilmore Girls came out, an alarm bell started ringing in my ears – it seemed like it was trying a little too hard to be fresh and modern, rather than the strange, outdated show we loved in the first place.

But in the lastest trailer, the references are dated and obscure and everything is great again. In the first five seconds we get nods to 1998 thriller Baby Moniter: Sound of Fear and 1996 TV movie Co-ed Call Girl. The up to date ones feel a little more… Gilmore: Ben Affleck, KonMari, the Tori Spelling suing Benihana scandal.

As in the last trailer, the nostalgia is palpable – a tour of Stars Hollow in snow, misty-eyed straplines, and in jokes with the audience about Kirk’s strange omnipotent character. It seems to avoid the saccharine though – with Rory and Lorelai balking at Emily’s enormous oil painting of her late husband.

What does it tell us about the plot of the new series? Luke and Lorelai are still together (for now), Rory has moved on from Stars Hollow, and Emily is grappling with the death of her husband (a necessary plot turn after the sad death of actor Edward Herrmann). In fact, Emily, Lorelai and Rory are all feeling a bit “lost”: Emily as she is trying to cope with her new life as a widow, Lorelai as she is questioning her “happy” settled life in Stars Hollow, and Rory because her life is in total flux.

We learn that Rory is unemployed and living a “rootless” or “vagabond” existence (translation: living between New York and London – we see skylines of both cities). But the fact that she can afford this jetset lifestyle while out of work, plus one plotline’s previous associations with London, points worryingly to one suggestion: Rory and Logan are endgame. (Kill me.) This seems even more likely considering Logan is the also the only Rory ex we see in a domestic setting, rather than in a neutral Stars Hollow location.

As for the other characters? Jess is inexplicably sat in a newsroom (is he working at the Stars Hollow Gazette?), Lane is still playing the drums (we know a Hep Alien reunion is on its way), Sookie is still cooking at the inn (and Melissa McCarthy’s comedy roles seem to have influenced the character’s appearance in the trailer’s only slapstick moment), Paris is potentially teaching at Chilton, Dean is STILL in Doose’s Market, Michelle is eternally rolling his eyes (but now with a shiny Macbook), Babette and Miss Patty are still running the town’s impressive amateur theatre scene, and Kirk is… well, Kirk.

The budget, context and some of the camerawork has evolved (the show’s style of filming barely changed excepting the experimental season seven), but much remains the same. For me, it’s the perfect combination of fan service, nostalgia, and modernisation (except, of course, for Logan. I hate you, Logan) – and seems to remain true to the spirit of the original show. Bring on 25 November!

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