Richard Eyre’s handsome 1994 production of Verdi’s La Traviata has long been a Royal Opera mainstay, and such is the work’s popularity that this season features some 27 performances with no less than six different casts. Conducted by Antonello Manacorda with stylish passion and wonderful attention to detail, the opening night of this lengthy revival was unquestionably rather special. Lisette Oropesa played Violetta opposite Liparit Avetisyan’s Alfredo, and both were exceptional, in some ways surpassing their own very fine achievements in the Royal Opera’s recent new staging of Rigoletto.
As with her Gilda, Oropesa welds sound with sense to create a characterisation of great depth and subtlety. Vocally, Violetta holds no terrors for her: the reckless coloratura of Act I is admirably secure and capped with a dazzling high E flat; the lyricism with which she yields to the moral demands of Christian Gerhaher’s Germont is at once heartbreaking and exquisite; and the emotional and physical anguish of the final scenes are all the more powerful for being etched with such unsentimental restraint. Suggesting fragile beauty on stage, she realises the breathlessness of tuberculosis – and, tellingly, the panic that accompanies it – with unsparing vividness, and throughout we really do believe in the intensity of her feelings for Alfredo and their power to transform and overwhelm her.
Avetisyan is in many ways similarly fine. Gauchely attractive, he barely conceals his desire for Violetta beneath a veneer of formality in Act I, continuously unsure whether to embrace her or stoop to kiss her hand, his eyes tracking her obsessively throughout. Later, he’s impetuously hotheaded, greeting Violetta’s apparent desertion with angry bitterness. This is another beautiful voice, and as with his Duke in Rigoletto: there’s a poetic quality to the best of his singing that can be utterly beguiling. Un Di Felice is marvellous in its amorous warmth and tenderness.
Gerhaher, however, seems miscast as his father. His characterisation of Germont as stiff, prissy and prone to violence can at times be remarkably telling, but his idiosyncratic way with Verdi’s vocal writing, frequently emphasising text at the expense of line, results in a lack of legato and choppy, at time even barked phrasing. A superb artist in Wagner and, above all, in Lieder, he’s out of his element here, which is something of a shame.
• La Traviata is in repertory at the Royal Opera House, London, until 18 April.