ENO Response 2023/24: La traviata

14th November 2023 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

Returning to the London Coliseum is Peter Konwitschny’s award-winning production of La traviata. Romantic and heartbreaking in equal parts, Verdi’s most famous opera tells the story of the doomed love between the courtesan, Violetta, and the gentleman, Alfredo.

Featuring some of opera’s most recognised music, accompanying themes of all-consuming forbidden love and tragedy, this production is renowned for its modern, focused staging and exceptional drama, earning an Olivier Award for ‘Best New Opera Production’ following its premiere in 2013.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Libretto by Franceso Maria Piave (1810-1876) after Alexandre Dumas, fils

Director, Peter Konwitschny
Revival Director, Ruth Knight
Conductor, Richard Farnes

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.

Pau Hernández Santamaria
This singing deserves more than a chair.

La Traviata is one of the most performed operas around the world. We could eternally discuss the unlikely and yet organic relationship of Violetta and Alfredo, the fantastic depiction of the Parisian high-society or the Romantic treatment of tuberculosis, a recurring theme when it comes to 19th century drama. ENO’s production of the Verdi masterpiece, a revival of the 2013 production directed by Ruth Knight, delivers a fantastic show that can easily bring anyone to tears if they have arrived at the Coliseum in an emotional mood.

The orchestra becomes a well-functioning vehicle under Richard Farnes’s baton, providing the audience with great preludes, and giving life and passion to Verdi’s famous melodies. Among the ensemble, Barnaby Robson stands out by creating a powerful and beautiful sound with his clarinet, becoming another one of the main figures in the opera. The cast is impeccable, as not only the supporting characters (Sarah-Jane Lewis, Zwakele Tshabalala or Freddie Tong, just to name a few) displayed a serious performance, but also the three main roles were played with the power and the vocal skill that such an opera needs. Roland Wood embodies a threatening Giorgio Germont that petrified the audience from his first appearance and Argentinian tenor José Simerilla shows unmistakeable star quality. His Alfredo, passionate and powerful, is a convincing character with whose despair and anxiety it’s easy to empathise. Likewise, Nicole Chevalier makes a wonderful Violetta and sings with conviction, taking the audience through all her exposed moments and all kinds of emotions, starting from her initial hesitance towards Alfredo to her (not so predictable in this version) death.

However, the production suffers from the visual point of view and from a couple of artistic decisions hard to understand. I appreciate that La Traviata is not as grandiloquent an opera as Aida or Nabucco and it’s meant to be a different sort of drama, perhaps more intimate and focused on character development; but that is not an excuse for having a chair and a few books as your only stage decoration. I like the fact that their costumes are closer to modern clothes rather than period dresses, but it’s hard to imagine Paris’ rich society with just a few red curtains behind the actors. The sense of time is also lost because we never see different locations such as Alfredo’s country house or Violetta’s bedroom and, as whole, this results in a dull staging that doesn’t do justice to a stunning musical experience.

Even if the stage design is too simple (almost inexistent) and a few odd cuts in the usual course of the plot take place, ENO’s La Traviata is a great production with fascinating singing and, overall, an statement of how good this company can get and what a disaster would it mean if a funding change were to damage it.


Oscar Cunnington
A radical reimagination of La Traviata that bursts with possibility

There is a contradiction at the heart of the ENO’s La Traviata. When you’re new to opera and think of it, you’re likely imagining this opera’s lavish emotional set pieces. You’re thinking of its overwrought plots and Verdi’s sumptuous score, performed with comfortingly consistent exuberance since its 1853 premiere.

But to watch Ruth Knight’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s acclaimed 2013 production is to see those comforts kaleidoscopically subverted. This is a production that strips its material back so thoughtfully and so thoroughly to create such a modern spectacle that it leaves one wondering how this talisman of opera history could possibly have been written almost two hundred years ago.

Eschewing the typical pomp and glamour of 19th century Parisian high society for a 1950s aesthetic, set designer Joachim Klein clads the stage in seven layers of austere red curtain. This masterful double stroke provides a metaphor for the layers of performance our protagonist must strip away as she wrestles with a gossip-ridden, reputation-dependent society and allows for that claustrophobic judgement to give way to a cavernous spatial loneliness in the production’s unforgettable final moments.

Such a void requires a true star to fill it and soprano Nicole Chevalier as Violetta is the supernova around which this production orbits. As the eponymous ‘fallen woman’ and dying Parisian courtesan, Chevalier simply stuns with a remarkable range and voice filled with anguish.

The stripped back staging isn’t merely aesthetic. It centres Violetta’s miserable journey and asks the audience to consider the role of the men in her downfall without removing any attention or agency from her.

Her suitor Alfredo, who enables her escape from high society, is played carefully and with bookish intensity by Jose Simerilla Romero who subtly builds in confidence throughout to create an arresting ambiguity in how selfless his love for Violetta really is.

But the most memorable duets are between Chevalier and Alfredo’s father, Germont. Baritone Roland Wood provides an imperious presence and convincingly captures the bullying and bashful nature of Germont’s atrocious request of Violetta on which the plot hinges. The addition of a noticeably young daughter during this scene adds realism to Violetta’s eventual decision while emphasising the systemic misogyny underwriting it all.

Throughout, conductor Richard Farnes marshals an inspired performance from the orchestra. Farnes finds the doom nestled in Verdi’s score and lets his strings gently bring Violetta’s inner turmoil to the surface as her tragic tale unfolds. The ENO Chorus are used sparingly but to great effect as a boisterous backdrop to Violetta’s high society pleasure-seeking.

If ENO’s mandate is to create new operatic experiences and connect society to the art form, it is hard to imagine a better example of a production rising to the occasion. This is a daring reimagination that will delight audiences who have seen it all and those who’ve never seen anything else. That it comes as the future of the company is again cast into doubt is simply another, rather bleaker, contradiction.


Hannah Bentley
La Traviata Review- radical, captivating, and powerful

Amidst the controversy of ENO’s funding issues and threats of relocation, Ruth Knight’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s La Traviata demonstrates the importance of this institution within the world of opera and the performing arts.

La Traviata was written in 1853, but Konwitschny sets the opera in the 1950s with no interval and a tight running time of 2 hours, making for an intense viewing experience. This intelligent re-telling of Verdi’s famous tragic love story explores hard-hitting themes that still ring true today. Strict societal expectations and double standards that women have to bear almost bring our leading lady, Violetta, to suicide.

Nicole Chevalier, the American soprano who is no stranger to the role of Violetta, proves she’s a force to be reckoned with. She demonstrates stunning vocal agility and strong commitment to character through physicality.

Alfredo Germont is played by Argentinian tenor Jose Simerilla Romero. Alfredo is portrayed as a geeky character, more comfortable amongst books than at decadent Parisian parties. Dressed in brown corduroy trousers, glasses and a snug cable knit cardigan, Romero brings great passion to this role.

Johannes Leiacker’s set may have been simple, but its design evokes powerful visions, nonetheless. Four crimson red curtains, spreading across the width of the stage. They emphasise the opera’s theatricality and reveal new levels of emotional turmoil each time one is pulled back. Apart from a single wooden chair, the stage is mostly bare, allowing the voices and musical drama to be the centre of attention.

At the party in scene three, the imagination behind this set design is fully realised. As the tension increases and the crescendo builds, the curtains are torn down and cascade around Violetta. A sudden switch to blue lighting creates a cold and lonely mood, summoning images of the sea. The chorus crawl off stage, slowly dragging the curtains away with them mimicking waves. Violetta is at the centre of this poetically sad scene, hugging Alfredo’s knitted cardigan for comfort as she appears to be floating adrift. Violins serenade this sorrowful moment, mourning the loss of Violetta’s and Alfredo’s love.

This is an example amongst many within the opera where Richard Farnes’ understanding of the drama within the score is clear. He conducts the orchestra with great energy and pace creating a synergy between the orchestra and singers.

In the final scene Violetta is marooned on stage, singing to Alfredo across the orchestra pit as he stands in the audience hugging his father. She disappears into a black abyss while the audience, so absorbed in the drama hold their breath, desperately wishing for a happier ending.

Despite one odd and cheap attempt at comedy (when four scantily dressed waitresses shuffle on to the stage at the beginning), this production that left the audience heartbroken. The lengthy standing ovation says it all: Konwitschny’s La Traviata is utterly mesmerising.


Jack Reilly
La traviata – reinvigoration of a classic

As the curtain rises on a set consisting solely of several more layers of curtains and a single chair, one could be forgiven for feeling slightly apprehensive – where is that glittering decadence one loves in La traviata? While Peter Konwitschny’s production, first seen in Graz in 2011 and recreated here by Revival Director Ruth Knight for its second ENO revival, is certainly minimalist in aspect, this minimalism actually rescues Verdi’s masterpiece from what could be a routine evening and maximises the work’s searing emotional charge.

Mortally ill, the courtesan Violetta Valéry is a doomed woman. Her affair with the gentleman Alfredo, presented here as a “socially awkward bookworm” (Konwitschny) rather than the traditional gallant lover, is equally doomed, due to both Violetta’s impending death and the emotional blackmail of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio.

Konwitschny’s production strips the opera down to its barest core – he cuts any music he deems unnecessary to the drama, including cabalettas and offstage bands, and eliminates intervals. The result is a Traviata of a thrilling intensity that’s never allowed to let up. The design is contemporary and, as mentioned, minimalist. Those layers of crimson curtain are gradually stripped away over the drama’s course, reflecting the unveiling of Violetta’s psychological and emotional states as her grasp on life unravels. This is an introspective, psychological Traviata, one that places all its weight upon this exploration of its heroine – it requires a powerhouse of a singing actor to pull it off.

Nicole Chevalier is that very powerhouse. Her Violetta is one desperately clinging to the edge from the very first. Her fatal illness is omnipresent; in the first scene she can barely keep herself upright, and distressed gasps of breath consistently interrupt melodic lines. Her Act III aria is performed in utter despair, with exaggerated phrasing and those ever-present gasps – absolute beauty is sacrificed for intensity of drama, and it works entirely to the benefit of the production’s heavy emotional impact.

The imperious Giorgio Germont is sung with malicious conviction by the powerful Roland Wood, the physical threat Konwitschny endows him with well matched by Wood’s solid vocal delivery. The weakest of the main trio is tenor Jose Simerilla Romero, whose tendency to recede into the orchestral texture during busy passages combined with his poor diction, featuring mismatched vowels and imperceptible consonants, leaves one unimpressed.

Conductor Richard Farnes guides the ENO Orchestra through the score with excellent beauty of line and persuasive phrasing; it is a great pity that ENO has been forced to consider cutting this venerable orchestra in size and pay by impractical Arts Council cuts.

For newcomers to opera, Konwitschny’s deconstruction of the work makes it hard to recommend as a first Traviata, its symbolic staging at times obscuring the plot (the gaming scene is particularly esoteric). But to those that know this most popular lyrical tragedy, and especially those who have grown tired of it, this is a searing production that will convince all of Verdi’s mastery in its emotional intensity.


Sophie Carlin
Genius staging and skilled Verdi veterans help this production of La traviata get inside the mind of the misunderstood

The curtain sweeps back slowly to unveil another curtain (the first of a series of them, we soon find), and a single chair. Twisted, opened, closed, pulled down, and thrown, fought over, postured upon respectively by the actors, these are the simple materials this production of Verdi’s La traviata uses to map its emotional life.

This opera focusses on the doomed romance between prostitute Violetta and bookish gentleman Alfredo. Ridiculed by Violetta’s colleagues at fashionable Parisian parties, their relationship is then finally dissolved by Alfredo’s father Giorgio, who (successfully) encourages Violetta to break it off to protect his family’s reputation. Her long-term illness then tragically kills her before all can be put right. However, in Peter Konwitschny’s (hugely cut down) version, committedly revived by director Ruth Knight, the focus is on excavating Violetta’s psychology, drilling beneath the feminine stereotype of the whore. This is about La traviata, the fallen woman.

‘What do I want?’, Violetta cries, in her Act I aria, ‘Is this the man…’. A precursor, perhaps, to Plath’s Esther Greenwood at the foot of the fig tree, tormented by choosing between the options before her, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s nameless protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper, reluctantly confined, ill, by her husband. A new line of cultural tradition appears – honestly depicted unwell women, tormented by choice, but also swept along by cruel circumstance.

The onstage space feels psychological, ‘symbolic’ rather than ‘realistic’, as Konwitschny admitted in a programme note. In Act I, Alfredo attempts to open the onstage curtains as he attempts to win over Violetta. In both, she alternately lets him, and resists. Eventually left alone onstage, she twists herself up in the curtains at one point in indecisive frustration, emitting just trilling, wordless noise.

As the show progresses, we penetrate further into the series of curtains, until they’re pulled down entirely for the final scene as Violetta dies, finally wig-less, in her bedroom, completing the gradual laying bare of the full depth of the Coliseum stage along with our heroine’s character. Johannes Leiacker’s set is genius.

Such stripped back staging makes room to focus on character, and so this production asks that its principals really deliver. Nicole Chevalier’s experience with playing Violetta is clear – despite some impressionistic diction, she shows stamina, vocal control, and an enormous dynamic range, thus creating for herself a diverse dramatic toolkit. Jose Simerilla Romero as Alfredo, however, often unfortunately sounded underpowered, unable to fill the enormous Coliseum. The orchestra, led by Verdi veteran Richard Farnes, was far from being on autopilot in this familiar repertory piece. They were responsive and driven, necessary for the sustained tension this production’s near-audacious libretto cuts and lack of interval demands.

This production packs its emotional punch latently – it was only as Chevalier took her final solo bow that I realised I had a lump in my throat. I’d simply been too transfixed to realise. Konwitschny dispatches the witnesses to her death (father and son, loving doctor and maid) into the stalls – it really is all her.


Rebecca J Hall
(Alfredo) Should Have Put A Ring On It

This opera left me conflicted. It’s worth watching to decide if Peter Konwitschny’s direction suits Verdi’s compassionate plot or if it distorts La Traviata into bleakest modernity.

Konwitschny’s vision is to bring Brechtian ideals into play. Both Brecht and Verdi are concerned about social change, but they approach this from diametrically opposed artistic theories, making this a discordant production. Brecht, a Marxist, wants the audience to disengage emotionally from the characters and focus on a story’s political implications. Catholic Verdi wants the audience to empathise with people who desire to change their lives but cannot.

The orchestra, under Richard Farnes, opens with trills of rain dripping on Parisian streets, and then boldly booms to match the intensity of the singers. The strings were superb and I particularly enjoyed the mournful clarinet solo.

Orphaned, vulnerable and friendless, Violetta Valéry is performed by dramatic coloratura soprano Nicole Chevalier with exceptional vocal prowess. The best female singer I have heard at the ENO so far, I found it difficult to applaud after her exquisite arias because of the sadness and emotion she conveyed.

Paul Sheehan also sang beautifully as Messenger and needs to be heard in bigger roles.

Set and costumes are visually interesting because of their simplicity, with a limited colour pallet of reds, blacks and creams. A series of curtains act as divisions between courtesan carnality, respectable romantic love, an imagined happy life culminating in a final curtain pulled back to reveal a stark black void.

There was engaging acting from the ensemble, who delightfully embodied the supercilious elite, ravenous for juicy gossip in evening dress. Their refrain in Act I “The day is here and we should leave” marks an excellent breathing point between scenes due to Marc Rosette’s cold harsh lighting. However, Jose Simerilla Romero’s Alfredo Germont was overpowered by the orchestra.

In a fun moment, Violetta throws a book to the back of the stage and it appears to land in Alfredo’s chest while he stands, besotted, in the stalls. She becomes increasingly isolated on stage: everyone either falls to the ground or leaves her. Very Brecht, but we lose Verdi’s emphasis on the social solidarity she experiences from her community.

Emotionally abusive Giorgio Germont invokes the Almighty to persuade Violetta to leave Alfredo, purely out of self-interest. Unlike Jesus, he has no compassion and her self-doubt leaves her malleable.
Almost all of Violetta’s religious lines are omitted in the final scene, so the audience doesn’t know if she finds wholeness with God and herself. As a result of this lack of growth, I was left cold and unmoved.

It was a pleasant evening but I felt there was something missing. This production leaves Violetta a victim, rather than a spiritual being who has control over finding peace. Can this tragic opera truly be a catharsis with the script’s optimism left out?


Chloe Sit
A radical reimagination of La Traviata that bursts with possibility

“Tell him my heart belongs with him until the day I die.”

A stark set of red curtains and a single chair introduces Peter Konwitschny’s second revival of La Traviata at the London Coliseum. At first glance, this doomed love story of courtesan Violetta and gentleman Alfredo seems set up for disappointment, with its trimmed 2-hour runtime, unvaried plotline, and age-old trope of star-crossed lovers. Yet, in a stunning tale of love, death, and sacrifice, Konwitschny’s Traviata proves to be so much more than a lacklustre Romeo and Juliet.

As Violetta marvels at her luxurious country house, surrounded only by the same red curtain and single chair, it’s not easy to see Johannes Leiacker’s minimalist set as a design choice rather than a pitiful result of recent Arts Council England cuts to the ENO. Leiacker’s resourceful staging and use of props as symbols somehow make it work, however. The curtain, red and black like Violetta’s costuming, becomes her best supporting character – she flings them open to welcome Alfredo onto the stage and into her life, drags them forward in conflicted anguish as she debates accepting his courtship after the party, and tearfully closes them as she accepts Germon plea to leave Alfredo.

Marc Rosette’s ingenious lighting design proves itself in the moment of pandemonium after Alfredo humiliates Violetta at the party; when the drapes flash bright purple and fall dramatically from the fly loft in a climactic representation of Violetta’s ultimate heartbreak and existential spiralling. The orchestra, playing some of opera’s most recognised music, complimented the production beautifully under the controlled intensity of Richard Farnes’ conducting. On top of that, Konwitschny’s decision to have Alfredo sing to his lover from the audience was brilliant, though I say this with some bias, as someone seated right beside him in the stalls.

A performance that embodied the libretto and brought the set to life, American soprano Nicole Chevalier dazzled in the lead role of Violetta. The intense passion with which she delivered the demimondes’ plight, along with a flawless balance of power and finesse, made for an outstanding display of spiralling desperation. Jose Simerilla Romero as bookish caricature Alfredo and Roland Wood as morally conflicting father Germont deliver similarly gripping performances, particularly during more emotionally intense sequences. The chorus – portraying the mob in Peter Grimes, the court in Iolanthe, and the society in Traviata – continues to impress with remarkable precision and emotion as well.

The casting for these complex characters is stellar, their convincing characterisation a testament to Konwitschny’s profound understanding of what Verdi sought to convey with Traviata. In Konwitschny’s words, theatre is about ‘holding up a mirror to ourselves and seeing how pitiful our humanity is’ – hence why Chevalier’s raw portrayal of a terrified woman clinging onto life itself anchored this production’s success. A vivid, dramatic sensation, Peter Konwitschny’s La Traviata is truly a piece that does justice to the opera form.


Jennie Beard