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: Jonathan Cape
Show Hide image

Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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

0800 7318496