6 August 2016 | Gyran
The Emperor's New Curtains
This is a film of the revival of Peter Konwitschny's production for English National Opera. It is difficult to see why anyone would want to film this unphotogenic production. The scenery consists of red curtains, although, occasionally, a character will draw back the curtains to reveal
more red curtains. There is a chair onstage throughout and, in Act II, we have the additional excitement of a pile of books. Don't get too excited though. Konwitschny has made cuts to the libretto so that any trace of light relief has been removed, notably the gypsy/toreador business in Act II. The result is just the gloomy bits of La Traviata, played continuously, without an interval.
Ben Johnson has to play Alfredo as a charmless, borderline Aspergers' character who is totally inept socially. Unfortunately, this lack of charm also rubs off onto his singing. At the ball, while everyone else is in evening dress, he wears a duffel coat, white, woolly cardigan and corduroy trousers. In Act II, captioned three months later, he is in the same cardigan and trousers which must have been getting a bit niffy by then. As Violetta, Elizabeth Zharoff, with a startlingly wide vibrato, gets off to a shaky start and does not impress in the virtuoso numbers that end Act I. One does have to sympathise with her having to sing, say, Sempre Libera in English. The English translation, throughout, is very clunky and the singers often have to sing several syllables on one note to fit everything in. Zharoff's performance does get better though and she is much more moving in the two final acts. A young-looking Anthony Michaels-Moore lacks gravitas, both physically and vocally as Germont. Not much is made of the minor roles either with, in particular, Martin Lamb having to play Dr Grenvil as a buffoon. The chorus, throughout behave like rampaging idiots.
Mentioning idiots brings me back to director Konwitschny. He introduces a character, Germont's daughter, who looks like a 12- year-old schoolgirl, which completely undermines Germont's argument about her engagement being in danger of being broken off. Konwitschny makes no attempt to dramatise the card game; the participants just stand there flicking cards in the air. In the final scene Violetta does not even get a deathbed; she has to manage with the same old chair. The final quintet is performed with Violetta on stage and Alfredo, Germont, Annina and the doctor standing in the audience. Alfredo keeps changing his position from the centre aisle to the side aisle forcing the unfortunate audience members on the second row to stand as he barges through them. I think that this is supposed to be funny but the people on the second row did not look amused. At the end, Violetta does not die she just walks off-stage. I would like to think that this is her expression of disgust at all that has gone before. Sadly, she does not seem to be the only one to be suffering from consumption. The audience at ENO could cough for England.