On Friday 13 March - having an evening to myself - I went to see La Traviata by the English National Opera at the Coliseum, having got a 'Secret Seat' ticket on Thursday.
On Sunday night Hei Mun asked me by email what I thought (I'd asked her expert advice on going to this and/or Purcell's Indian Queen, being across all things opera; she warned me off the production of Indian Queen, which she'd seen, but thought La Traviata would be worth it). Here's what I said:
'you may get a full pleb's-eye view on my blog sometime in the next two years (wrote up a couple of things from 2013 today...), but in short:
- I liked it
- I was surprised I only recognised one song/tune from it (the drinking song) - my first Verdi, but it's a famous one
- I was surprised how unelucidated the 'plot' was
- I was surprised how much of it was solo singing, with comparatively few combinations and very little chorus work (seems a shame when you have all these good singers in one place not to use them together, but then I prefer harmony singing to solo singing)
- I was genuinely impressed at how powerfully people could sing while lying down or otherwise awkwardly positioned
- to my plebby ears it was sung and played well (male lead was unwell, sub sounded good to me; female lead was a bit 'harsh warble' for my tastes, but maybe that's how it's meant to sound)
- I didn't mind the simple staging (lots of curtains), but if there was a symbolism in the layers and the opening and closing then I didn't get it (but I haven't read the programme yet, there may be a clue in there; layers of society/hypocrisy/intimacy?)
- a couple of times characters sang from the stalls, and I didn't get that either (programme ditto; Violetta's isolation?)
- I find it odd that everyone who sang even a couple of solo lines (like the man who delivered a letter) gets an individual bow and round of applause at the end
- I was surprised, it being the last performance, that there were no flowers (camellias?) or similar at the end
- I wondered if composers writing operas featuring people dying of consumption is a satirical dig at the number of people who cough their way through an evening at the theatre; there was certainly no shortage of coughers in the audience
- I'd definitely do the Secret Seat again
- I don't think I'd ever feel the need to see it again, but I'm very glad to have seen it.'
Since writing that I've read the programme. The first thing to say is that it wasn't the man playing Alfredo who was unwell, but the man playing his father, Giorgio. This explains why at the end the conductor shook Giorgio's hand rather than Alfredo's, which had puzzled me.
The Secret Seat is a great scheme, where you pay £20, are guaranteed a seat priced at at least £25 and from which you can see the surtitles (ENO sing in English, incidentally, but surtitles still helpful); there's a limited number (don't know if they increase the number for productions not selling so well), and they tell you a couple of days before the performance what your actual seat is. Mine was in Row C of the dress circle; I'm not entirely sure, but think this may have been a £105 ticket.
The most striking example of the plot vagueness was that although Violetta is famously a courtesan/prostitute, I saw no way of telling that from what I saw or heard on stage: 'a whore despised by society', the programme says, but I hadn't realised she was despised, she appeared quite popular. It's almost amusing to read the synopsis in the programme (or on Wikipedia), packed with detail, nuance and motivation so unevident in the text or performance. Although this production is a shorter one, I understood the cuts to be of repeated song sections and of musical/dance sections; but maybe some things were cut which would have conveyed some of the things described in the synopsis. The other programme articles are similarly full of interpretations and meanings and readings and depths which, again, were in no way apparent to me watching it (as with other operas, I had deliberately not read the synopsis or the programme notes beforehand, to keep the performance more interesting for me, so that I didn't know exactly what was going to happen). It seemed a very straightforward story to me watching it (tragic odd couple love story), with a major implausibility at the heart of it (why did she leave him - and betray him - just because his father asked her to leave him?), but apparently I should have understood it was much more complicated than that.
The on-set curtains coming down represented the beautiful surface of an allegedly civilised society being temporarily shattered. I thought Alfredo was straightforwardly in love with Violetta, but the programme doesn't think so.
I think the execution of the music, the singing and the production were fine, and it's none of those which make me uninterested in seeing it again; it's the material itself, and probably chiefly within that the amount of solo singing, and that the melodies didn't appeal to me particularly.
Interestingly, the programme suggests it was originally going to be called 'Love and Death', a title Woody Allen did use.
The director on the curtains set (translated, to be fair): 'we deliberately avoided realistic sets and instead created a symbolic world of theatre drapes that is both surreal and nightmare-like. When the curtain rises in the theatre, a story begins. When it falls, that story is over. But these are only the most simplistic interpretations. If we multiply them by the imaginary number 'the square root of minus one', the act of passing through several curtains that open successively can also signify the passage towards death.' Now that's funny.
The Wikipedia plot summary, actually, is more straightforward, more like what I actually saw. Also indicates that some of the cuts were chorus songs at the later party, not just instrumental as I'd thought; so I guess I'd have enjoyed it more with those still in it.
Some reviews. Independent (likes the singing, not the staging). Guardian. Express. Bachtrack.com. Mark Ronan blog. Planet Hugill blog (which reminded me of the way the chorus crawled off stage like slugs into darkness at the end of one scene to leave Violetta on stage alone, which started ridiculous but became creepy in a good way). Standard. What's On Stage. Financial Times. A Younger Theatre (a good line: 'As the looming curtains are torn down, leaving Violetta alone on an empty stage, the picture would have been more poignant if the stage had not been empty all along'). MusicOMH.