Ellen Kent productions always have a few surprises – she is known for adding dramatic and unexpected detail to her productions of classic opera, whether it be the Vegas style golden eagles or live stallions on stage. Her version of La Traviata which I saw at Norwich Theatre Royal has a surprise for regular Kent fans – but the surprise is that this is a delightfully straightforward and gimmick free production of this powerful and moving tale of love, death and morality.
A simple but elegant set (surprisingly familiar from previous tours) allows us to concentrate on the story, the cast and the superb score from Giuseppe Verdi. Ellen Kent directs and produces this elegant show, and runs and funds the company that bears her name and is always the first to greet reviewers in the interval. She achieves packed houses and memorable shows in this most expensive of artforms without any of the sponsorship or subsidy that the famous London opera houses appear to consider their right.
Ellen Kent scours the globe for performers who match her high standards and has been particularly successful in bringing talent from the former Soviet Bloc countries including Ukraine, Romania and Moldova amongst others. The lead role of Violetta, the love struck former courtesan, was sung by Odessa graduate Alyona Kistenyova. She has a fabulous purity of tone yet also a hugely powerful voice and the stage presence to give a very convincing portrayal of a young woman who knowing she is dying from tuberculosis balances her hedonistic desire for pleasure against her social duty. She falls in love with headstrong young poet Alfredo Germont (Vitalii Liskovetskyi), casting aside her wealthy previous companion Barone Douphol (Eugen Ganea). They move in together but within days he realises that she is having to sell everything she owns to fund their lifestyle as he earns nothing.
Meanwhile Alfredo’s father Giorgio (the splendid baritone Iurie Gisca) visits to plead with her to send his son back to the bosom of his family. Heartbroken she yields to his request. The lovers return separately to the falsity of Parisian party life, but soon a confrontation comes about between the poet and the baron as a card gambling evening goes wrong. There is an off-stage duel and Alfredo takes off, but he cannot stay away from his true love. This is opera, so although we have redemption at the end it is of course a deathbed scene.
The music and the plot of La Traviata are both very familiar to many of us, but in concentrating on the music this production allows us to hear every detail of Verdi’s score from a very capable cast and orchestra (The Orchestra of the National Ukrainian Opera!) and in particular the tour de force from Alyona Kistenyova. We are not allowed to bring wine glasses into this auditorium – just as well! And being opera we can of course draw a veil over our worries about how a sufferer from terminal consumption could draw such power from her lungs.
For me the scenes between Violetta and Giorgio, her lover’s father, seemed the most touching in this drama full of pathos and tragedy. Verdi reduces the original story from Alexandre Dumas down to its bare essentials and the result is hugely enjoyable, leaving us all with a warm glow as we trudge home through the icy winds.
© Julian Swainson
La Traviata, Monday 19 March at 7.30pm. Madama Butterfly, Tuesday 20 March at 7.30pm. Tickets £8-£36.50. Discounts for Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Surtitles are not visible from Stalls seats Rows Q-W.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.