La traviata - Royal Opera House, 3 October 2011
Don't worry if you missed this performance - there are another 21 to go. Yes, it's safe to say that if you're fond of La traviata, Covent Garden is the place to be this autumn. With three casts, three conductors, two separate revival directors and a couple of bonus appearances from Anna Netrebko, you'll be spoilt for choice.
Sadly the first night of show that's projected to run for longer than the average West End musical was "hampered, indeed sabotaged" (as Anne Midgette might put it) by the conducting. And not a baritenor in sight. The culprit was one Jan Latham-Koenig, a Brit despite the name, and an experienced opera conductor to boot.
The translucent delicacy of the opening bars promised much. And it's fair to say he exercised scrupulous control over the orchestral palette throughout, eliciting some beautiful playing. But he just couldn't keep singers and band in the same time zone. The first act threatened to fall apart every few seconds. I've never heard anything quite like it. It wasn't just one capricious diva throwing him off - neither soloists or chorus danced to his tune.
It's a miracle the whole thing didn't grind to a halt. He even managed, more than once, to drown out the huge voice of Leo Nucci. Co-ordination gradually improved, but only to the extent that it was slightly less awful than the start. You'd think he'd never conducted an opera before (and the way he buried his nose in the score suggested maybe he hadn't had much experience with this particular one). He has the credentials, and I'm sure he was booked with the best intentions, but I wouldn't blame the management if they quietly substitute someone at least minimally competent for the rest of Koenig's dates.
It seemed the audience were not the sort to trouble with using their ears, judging by the applause (over the music) as the bordello-gilt scenery of Act II Scene 2 was unveiled. But it was quite the worst conducting I've ever heard at Covent Garden.
The evening was at least partially salvaged by Marina Poplavskaya's stunning Violetta. Not everyone likes Richard Eyre's traditionally-styled workhorse production - I do. One of its greatest strengths is its ability to accommodate all sorts of artists and all sorts of interpretations. Poplavskaya's Violetta is regal, imperturbable, lacking the vulnerability that might generate sympathy for her predicament. But it works, because Poplavskaya is completely inside the role, and she makes the words count. Who cares if her leaps above the stave fall a little short of the right pitch? When she flings out her flattened B's with that much conviction, you're inclined to mistrust your ears, not her tuning.
James Valenti coped much better with Alfredo than he did with Pinkerton a few months back , nailing most of the notes in the expected style. But he gives no clue who Alfredo is, and scant comfort that he actually understands the words he's singing. My last two Alfredos were Kaufmann and Calleja, so I know I'm spoilt, but Covent Garden deserves better.
And he has zero chemistry with Poplavskaya. They exchanged glares of contempt as if each plotting how best to slip rat poison into the other's champagne.
Leo Nucci provided a stock Germont, the bonus of a rare genuine Verdi baritone tempered by its now-threadbare condition.
He seemed to have brought a busload of noisy Italian supporters along with him. Was Nancy Dell'Olio one of them? In a backless leopard print chiffon dress, slashed down to the navel and up to the legpit, hair piled into a nest of black snakes, Fancy Nancy (much prettier in real life) offered the evening's only glimpse of true Italian style.
Production photos (above): Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House
Curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com