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La Traviata

Royal Opera House

YOUonly have to listen to the opening bars of the Prelude to remember that you are in the company of one of the major classics. Verdi's 1853 adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas story has one hit song after another. Blimey, this could be Top of the Pops without the miming.

The early demise of people 200 years ago because of tuberculosis and other illnesses that had yet to be either diagnosed correctly or cured has made for good literature, art and opera. La Traviata remains one of the finest. Violetta Valery (Nora Amsellem), a courtesan, has not been well, which, as this is a tragedy, is a bit of a clue as to how things pan out. She is introduced to Alfredo Germont (Joseph Calleja), who has admired her from afar. But he should be a bit more street smart and know the relationship is doomed when they sing the drinking song, Libiamo, ne' lieti calici. She sings that life is "only a pleasure". He responds: "For those who don't know love." Then Violetta lets slip that being a kept woman is not about romance: "Speak not of love to one who knows not what it is."

Alfredo should have put down his wine and walked then. But no, he stays, even helping her when she faints. Even that masterpiece, Sempre Libre, fails to convince him that this is a wrong move. "I must always live, gaily in the world's gay places, ever seeking newer joys," is Violetta's take on her life, while Alfredo sings to himself: "Love is the very breath of the universe itself." Still, they get it on, in a very 19th century way, and move in together.

Tedium will follow

Alfredo's old man, though, will have none of it. With Violetta, who is keeping them both, already so in debt that she is having boot sales all around Paris, Giorgio Germont (Anthony Michaels-Moore) comes straight to the point by telling Violetta that she is "ruining" his son. He blackmails her into leaving Alfredo with some cock and bull story about the wedding of Alfredo's sister not going ahead unless he returns home. Violetta, though, suddenly realises she does know what love is: "Can you see what tremendous burning love I feel for him?" She even confesses about her illness, but Germont, the pitiless swine, has none of it and tells her that, like most marriages, "tedium will follow quickly".

At this stage Violetta should have told him to push off. Now, I had a problem once with the mother of a girlfriend who threatened me with a knife. Did I run for it? No way. It broke up eventually, but I would like to think it's because the young woman in question and I didn't like what we saw in front of us, rather than me fretting about a knife-wielding crazy mama coming up behind me. But Violetta was bullied psychologically by a smooth-talker, who did not want his boy cohabiting with a woman of dubious morals. Germont even spouts some crap about her continuing to live, mind you with someone else's son. That despite Violetta already informing him that her illness is pretty terminal. Then he has the nerve to tell her to "be happy" before she writes a note to Alfredo, telling him it's all over and she's off.

Alfredo gets cross, well he is played by a Maltese tenor. Well he doesn't just get cross; he is livid, as is borne out when they see each other again around a gaming table at their friend Flora's house. Before that matadors and gypsy girls join the guests in a song and dance in a room vibrating with deep colours. Then it gets serious. Violetta arrives with Baron Douphol (Eddie Wade). The Baron and Alfredo play a game of cards that is more like the duel that is to come later, with Alfredo, both times, coming out on top. Violetta makes out she is in love with the Baron. Alfredo calls everyone back into the room and throws his winnings at Violetta; paying back everything he owes her. She faints again and it is Alfredo who is humiliated by his actions. Even his father shuns him: "Where is my son? I cannot find him."

Pulling of the heart strings

Act Three is a death scene as powerful as any, with the despair of the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti's highland fling, coming to mind. Violetta's consumption has got worse, although not as much as that of some of the people sitting around me who seemed to have saved their most throaty of croaks for the end. Violetta, dressed in her nightgown, suffers with great yearning ("I miss so much Alfredo's love," she sings as the heartstrings get pulled every which way in Addio, del passato), lifting herself from her sick bed.

The bleakness of her room, and the weeping solo violin, contrasts with the colour of the carnival going on outside her window. Alfredo arrives only as she is about to breathe her last. "Forgive my father and me," he implores. "What is there to forgive?" she responds. Now Verdi should have turned a bit Faustian at this stage and let Violetta put a curse on Alfredo and his old man for what they did to her. But that's probably another opera altogether.

Still, she gives Alfredo a locket to remind him of her and for him to give to any future wife (as if any future Mrs Alfredo is going to want someone else's cast off). Alfredo's father is also repentant. "Forgive me for having made your heart suffer." Too late pal. She collapses and dies.

This is Violetta's opera and Amsellem is a soprano with great range and compassion. Calleja is a tyro tenor, who will eventually leave Traviata behind to move on to more demanding roles. Michaels-Moore provides one of the highlights with his duets with Violetta (Ah! Dite alla giovine makes you just sit up in your seat) as he tries, successfully, to persuade her to leave Alfredo. He should be the villain of the piece, and is, but with such singing he deserved to receive some of the loudest cheers of the evening.

Review by Peter Wilson

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