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The week in classical: La rondine; La traviata review – rapture and raw power | Opera

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Two Italian operas opened last week in the UK, each dealing with perennial themes of love and loss, yet as far from each other in approach as could possibly be imagined; one opulent and glamorous, the other dark and visceral. The rapture could be found in Leeds, from the ever-inventive Opera North; the starkness in London, appropriately from battered and bruised English National Opera.

Puccini’s La rondine (1917), often dismissed as a minor operetta when compared with his larger masterpieces, receives a welcome reassessment in James Hurley’s hugely attractive new production, set in 1930s Paris and given the full art deco treatment by designer Leslie Travers, with glorious costumes from Gabrielle Dalton that shimmer under Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill’s lighting design.

It’s a piece that borrows widely. The central figure, Magda, is similar to Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata – a courtesan searching for love. Her vivacious maid Lisette could have stepped out of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, and the central cafe scene bears a striking resemblance to Puccini’s own Cafe Momus in his La bohème. It’s a lighthearted romantic comedy, and Puccini doesn’t hold back, writing a deft score that swoons with beguiling melodies, lilting waltzes and even a touch of tango, enthusiastically handled by the Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Kerem Hasan.

It’s a terrific showcase for soprano Galina Averina, who sings Magda – the flighty swallow of the title – with sparkling vivacity, surrounded by a flock of wide-eyed, giggling good-time girls, Yvette (Pasquale Orchard), Bianca (Kathryn Sharpe) and Suzy (Laura Kelly-McInroy). Magda is mistress to Rambaldo, a dull Parisian banker (reliable baritone Philip Smith), when the handsome Ruggero finds her in the riotous Cafe Bullier and a passionate affair begins. Ruggero is the French tenor Sébastien Guèze, looking the part but not always sounding secure.

This dizzying central cafe scene is a masterclass in tightly organised chaos, with each member of the chorus a clearly defined character, constantly on the move, ordering drinks, eyeing each other up, confusing the waiters. In the midst of all the mayhem a breathtaking fight breaks out among four apache dancers, just one element in Lauren Poulton’s always eye-catching choreography.

And alongside all this, another affair is taking shape, between Lisette, skittishly sung by soprano Claire Lees, and Prunier, a suave poet with high ideals but earthy appetites (and the supposed composer of the opera’s standout ballad, Che il bel sogno di Doretta). He’s engagingly sung by tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas, making his Opera North debut.

Ultimately – and unusually – it is the men who are left broken by these affairs, as the women reject their visions of marriage and children, choosing instead the freedom of the swallow to seek fresh adventures. But in Verdi’s La traviata (1853), it is Violetta whose life is shattered, not by her lover’s rejection but by her sense of obligation to another woman’s happiness. She is forced to break off her affair when she accepts the accusation that her past as a courtesan would fatally damage her lover’s family reputation and his sister’s impending marriage.

It’s a moving scene in any performance of Verdi’s masterpiece, but particularly so in English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s raw, no-frills 2013 production. American soprano Nicole Chevalier gives a devastating portrayal of the doomed courtesan in an extraordinarily powerful performance, brought sharply into focus by laser-like direction from revival director Ruth Knight and played out on a stage devoid of scenery and props.

Huge curtains swing back and forth in a metaphor for revelation and concealment, but otherwise there is nothing to attract the eye, throwing all the attention unrelentingly upon the performers. Chevalier is as good an actor as she is a singer and can easily withstand this level of observation; others are not so fortunate. Argentinian Jose Simerilla Romero, making his ENO debut as her lover Alfredo, possesses a refined tenor voice, but it’s too small for the Coliseum, his words often lost in its vast auditorium. We are in the 1950s in this production, and he’s not helped by designer Johannes Leiacker’s decision to dress him as a beat poet, all horn-rimmed specs and big floppy cardie.

Nicole Chevalier in ENO’s La traviata.
‘Extraordinarily powerful’: Nicole Chevalier in ENO’s La traviata. Photograph: Jane Hobson/Shutterstock

Baritone Roland Wood, as Alfredo’s father, Germont, who persuades her to end her affair, needs no scenery to support his magnificent performance, but Konwitschny’s idea that he should be accompanied by his betrothed daughter (a character Verdi only allows us to imagine) is troubling. She’s a schoolgirl. Germont’s plea to Violetta now looks like part of a pattern of menacingly controlling behaviour, rather than a direct appeal to her conscience.

By happy coincidence, Opera North’s former music director Richard Farnes is conducting ENO’s La traviata. His rapport with the orchestra was obvious from the first bar, drawing some exemplary performances from players still winded by recent redundancy announcements, and the principled resignation this month of their music director, the hugely respected Martyn Brabbins.

As ENO reels from one Arts Council-inspired blow to the next (the much-loved chorus is surely in line for cuts), could Farnes be the person to steady the ship for a while? He would no doubt view it as a poisoned chalice – no conductor wants to preside over enforced decline – but his consummate musicianship and wide experience would be invaluable in this time of crisis. What wasn’t in doubt on the first night was the audience’s support for the imperilled orchestra. A roar of sympathetic approval went up when Farnes led the players on stage at the calls; a roar that could – and should – have been heard up the road at Arts Council England’s London HQ.

Star ratings (out of five)
La rondine ★★★★★
La traviata ★★★

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