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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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