Matthew Lunn reviews Verdi's La Traviata now playing at the King's Head Theatre.
King's Head Theatre
2 October 2018
Certain art forms hold indelible associations, and of the performing arts, opera is the quintessential example. Its music is at once passionate and elevated, the expression of ineffable beauty that comforted the residents of Shawshank, and serenaded millions during Italia ’90. It has an inherent majesty, yet speaks to our shared understanding of the human condition.
The King’s Head Theatre’s La Traviata is part of a programme of contemporary adaptations of classic operas, a wonderful endeavour which will introduce the genre to new, perhaps slightly sceptical audiences. As a staple of the great English pub theatre, the venue is a huge part of this charm, and thanks to Panaretos Kyriatzidis’s faultless piano playing (an effectively low maintenance arrangement), no hindrance to the staging. Yet in this instance, despite an imaginative set and a sensational central performance, I left feeling disappointed, the promising premise not quite holding together.
Violetta (Emma Walsh) is a dancer is a seedy, but exclusive strip club, presided over by Flora (Gráinne Gillis) and frequented by Labour politician Richard Sinclair (Victor Sgarbi). One evening, he brings his son, Elijah (Alex Haigh), a prodigious musician who has little experience with women. He falls for Violetta, and she seizes the opportunity for a fresh start. Neither Flora or Sinclair can stomach the match, however, and soon Violetta is faced with a terrible decision.
At just 110 minutes, including an interval, the piece is extremely accessible for those, like Blackadder, who lament opera’s interminability. It does, however, leave the narrative a little lightweight. Whilst this is a fair critique of numerous exemplary operas, it is particularly noticeable here. The action is condensed into four discrete scenes, with Becca Marriot’s libretto and the versatile set – which convincingly transforms from club to bedsit – gluing the rest together. Violetta’s relationship with Elijah is, like with Alfredo in Verdi’s original, over before it has a chance to flourish, or for our hopes and fears to blossom with theirs. This is OK – but problematically, the adaptation does not compensate by building the world of its characters.
Marriott’s libretto is linguistically adept, and often effective, yet with the exception of Violetta, its characters lack complexity. Sinclair’s references to the scandal that will follow Elijah if he remained with her is too expository to be thought-provoking. In turn, whilst his son’s possessive ardour and casual misogyny (fuelled by anger and drink) is highly relevant to a modern audience, it is not presented as toxic masculinity, but the misguided passion of a desperate youth. As these actions characterise the bulk of his stage time, it is difficult to reconcile with the manner of the couple’s wistful separation, which felt tragic for all the wrong reasons. Conversely, Flora does not appear as the unreasonable authority figure demanded by the plot, but rather an unfeeling but fair businesswoman whose actions, were it not for Gillis’s charismatic performance, could just have easily taken place off-stage.
The aforementioned three were in excellent voice, with Haigh and Sgarbi relishing their roles as their characters’ passions rise. Gillis’s strong mezzo tones were even more impressive, bestowing Flora with suitable gravitas. The greatest praise must go to Walsh’s superb Violetta, who expertly depicts la traviata’s cycle of pain, love, fury and resignation with impressive vocal range, unwavering pitch and a highly expressive face. Had the opera been a little longer, a wealth of philosophical and satirical possibilities might have emerged, bestowing an invaluable complexity to her tragedy. As it was, it is a flawed piece for which audience mileage may vary, but one unquestionably elevated by its lead.
The King’s Head Theatre’s La Traviata depicts Verdi’s tragedy in a contemporary setting, but the lightweight narrative and underdeveloped characters left me feeling unedified and unconvinced. Nevertheless, the excellent set and good performances, not least Emma Walsh’s exceptional Violetta, will compel me to seek out the company’s future work.
Until 27 October 2018