La traviata - Royal Opera House, 28 November 2011
I'm guessing Simon Keenlyside did his own grey hairspray* on Monday night and forgot to check the back. I mean, he can't have been going for the caramelised badger look deliberately. Can he?
It was part of his stab at playing Germont much older than I can recall any other singer attempting in this production - even last month's Leo Nucci. Accessorised with a walking stick that he sometimes forgot he needed and a stoop that failed to mask his natural gymnast's posture, he recalled my own brother's portrayal of Polonius. In the school play, aged 16.
With only a few years between Keenlyside and Piotr Beczala, the motive may have been a sound one, but it was hard to believe Beczala's mature and self-confident Alfredo would bend to the will of quite such a feeble dodderer.
Yet this is clearly revival director Rodula Gaitanou's intent. She transposes the production's time-honoured second act shove, so that it's Alfredo who knocks his father to the floor, rather than the other way round as usual (I think I can use that word now it's on its 20th-ish run). No change is without consequences though, and the risk here is that Alfredo is set up as a violent bully with a hair-trigger temper, and his later rejection of Violetta is merely an off-the-cuff physical outburst.
The ageing of Germont is not without vocal implications either. Keenlyside's voice is barely touched by his years, and he's never had those basso depths that convey age without effort. I'm sure it'll come across just fine on the radio, but from a baritone who's mastered looking cool in puffy pants and tights (Don Carlo) and falling in love dressed as a marshmallow (Pelléas) it lacks an edge of conviction on stage.
Not only is the Royal Opera House's answer to The Mousetrap on the second of its four casts this season, it also has a fresh conductor - Patrick Lange, making his house debut.
Lange carved out some brilliant detailing. The Overture's 'barrel organ' has never come across so clearly - the thoroughness of his preparation was obvious within mere bars. But he also played dangerously with some extreme and unconventional tempos. Dramatically, this pointed up shifts in mood with startling clarity and sat well with Ailyn Pérez's conception of Violetta as a woman in constant struggle between emotional inclination and moral duty.
But the singers often seemed wary and confused by the unfamiliar pacing. Whether inadequate communication or insufficient rehearsal should be blamed, it's hard to say. But the results were painfully obvious - a few minor partings of the way, near-meltdown as Alfredo and Violetta began their final act duet, and a general feeling of tension and unease that seemed to permeate the entire evening.
This was most obvious in Pérez's first act, marked by erratic tuning, pinched tone and wavering coloratura. Fortunately a plusher tone eventually won through. Elegantly floated pianissimos combined with her fragile beauty to produce a Violetta of compelling vulnerability - she seems truly inside the role in a way even the greatest singers sometimes aren't. I hope I'm not being overgenerous in assuming her shortness of breath was just a theatrical effect.
Beczala, while a practiced Alfredo, wasn't the ideal pairing. He looked (and acted) old enough to be her pervy uncle. But the audience responded enthusiastically to his rugged, well-crafted singing. One of this excellent production's strengths is that it can digest almost any singer's personal interpretation, but I do think that sometimes encourages the ROH to just chuck any big name in the hat, knowing they'll escape without embarrassment or discomfort.
No complaints about the supporting cast though, with a particularly strong Annina from Gaynor Keeble, a vibrant Flora from Hanna Hipp and Daniel Grice's suave Marquis D'Obigny the pick of the bunch.
*(wisely) not applied for the production shots below
production photos (above) - Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below) - intermezzo.typepad.com
And courtesy of Kyoko, here's the curtain call on video: