The late Jonathan Miller blessed English National Opera with his gangster Rigoletto in 1982 and his Mikado in 1986, both still in the repertoire. Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly, in the air since 2005, returns in the spring. Down the road at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the late Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1981) and Graham Vick's Eugene Onegin (1994) will be hard to better.
And at the Royal Opera House the long service medal goes to Verdi's La Traviata in the production by Richard Eyre that celebrates 25 years this season with a run that stretches over three months.
Opening night of the latest revival chalked further impressive numbers. There have been 525 performances of La Traviata in this and earlier productions at the Royal Opera House – it regularly tops lists of the opera most sung worldwide. In addition, 2019 marks 30 years at the Royal Opera House for the much-admired baritone Simon Keenlyside.
Hrachuhi Bassenz's Violetta is troubled by a visitor to her idyllic new country retreat. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
The roll call of Violettas in Eyre's La Traviata reads like a Who's Who of international opera. Notably, in recent years, Angela Gheorghiu, Joyce El-Khoury and Ermonela Jaho. In the 25th anniversary revival, the first of five singers in the leading role over three months is the Armenian soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz. Her fellow Armenian Liparit Avetisyan sings her lover Alfredo, with Keenlyside as Alfredo's father.
You could say there are three Violettas in Verdi's La Traviata, rather than the single woman who has strayed, as the title suggests.
There is the Violetta of Act One, flirtatious, generous with her favours, an indefatigable hostess but for the consumption that is slowly eating away at her. Act Two Violetta is a home-maker, settled in the country with Alfredo, and dignified when confronted by his scandalised father. Finally, Violetta in Act Three is a stricken invalid, wishing for Alfredo's future happiness with another. The challenge for each soprano who undertakes this marathon role is to make all three versions of Violetta convincing.
Like many veteran productions, Eyre's is faithful to the original, neither in or out of fashion but an unshowy reflection of the source material. This dates from the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, one of the many lovers of the consumptive Parisian courtesan on whom Violetta is based, Marie Dupressis.
Simon Keenlyside gives an acting masterclass as Giorgio Germont. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
In Bob Crowley's lavish design, the opera opens in the plush golden salon where Violetta entertains until dawn. When Violetta is won over by faithful Alfredo, the couple move out of Paris. Fabric samples and unhung pictures suggest a life slowed down, stripped of high society's competitiveness and perfectionism. Here Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, begs her to end the relationship that blights his daughter's chance of marrying.
After a row and a disastrous evening in the dizzying glamour of the casino to which she returns, the dying Violetta is, finally, all but alone in a vast room where the louvred shutters flicker with the giant silhouettes of carnival revellers outside as she slips out of life.
Bassenz probably score highest in Act Two, when the arrival of Keenlyside as Giorgio Germont lifts the acting all round, and Violetta at his stoney behest sacrifices love and returns to the high life. Although sumptuous in many ways, Violetta's Act One salon is hard for the hostess with the mostest to navigate. And in Act Three Bassenz does not reach the depths plumbed by Jaho, but the closing bars are nonetheless shattering. The Italian is, sadly, all but indecipherable.
Slightly flaccid at the outset under conductor Daniel Oren, the performance gained momentum, and first-night feral intonation disappeared. Avetisyan complemented Bassenz in tone and commitment. The chorus, somewhat impeded in Act One, really lets rip in the part that ends Act Two, and at which Germont father and son show their true colours.
Richard Eyre's La Traviata has become something of a London landmark. Those who pass by often may take it for granted, but it's a must-see destination, and this silver anniversary revival seems the perfect time to catch this little treasure.
La Traviata is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Performances are at regular intervals, 17 Dec to 23 March. Booking for winter dates is open. Booking for spring dates opens 29 Jan. The matinee performance on 1 Feb is British Sign Language interpreted with reduced-price seating for BSL users.
|What||La Traviata, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
17 Dec 19 – 23 Mar 20, 21 performances, times vary
|Website||Click here for further information and booking|