Time is precious for Verdi’s doomed courtesan, particularly in Peter Konwitschny’s abridged La traviata. First seen in Graz in 2011, this modern-dress production – with which Konwitschny makes his long-awaited UK debut – banishes clutter, reducing the action to under two hours in a race for the conclusion. Even the interval has been left on the cutting-room floor. What emerges is Violetta’s desperation for Alfredo and for life, sharpened by the closeness of death.
The avant-garde German director is primarily concerned with the evolution of Violetta’s character. This helps to explain why Jonannes Leiacker’s set offers no distractions, save for one chair and several rows of red and black curtains. Through these, Konwitschny burrows into Violetta’s psyche, peeling back the layers, as she gradually sheds her defences in the name of love. All drapes are drawn at the beginning of the first scene. At the opera’s climax, they lie in a heap, while she crouches on an otherwise empty stage. An outsider to the end, she even dies alone: Alfredo’s final words are delivered, not from her side as tradition would dictate, but from the middle of the auditorium, several yards away.
But then, it wouldn’t be like Konwitschny to leave convention unchallenged. In his interpretation, Alfredo’s father is a tyrant, dragging behind him a character usually only mentioned in the libretto: his daughter, whose glittering marriage prospects are supposedly threatened by Violetta’s reputation. What we see, however, is a squashed cabbage leaf of a girl, obviously petrified of her menacing father.
It all adds up to an innovative, haunting concept, to which the singers, by and large, do justice. Making her European debut, the American soprano Corinne Winters shows promise as Violetta, but has yet to get under the skin of the role. She sings well, if too quietly, bringing the same commitment to the technical hurdles of the first half as the lyricism of the second. But there’s little sign of the character’s fragility.
By contrast, Ben Johnson exudes a touching vulnerability as a bookish, awkward Alfredo, while Anthony Michaels-Moore contributes a formidable, if vocally strained Germont. The conductor Michael Hofstetter draws energised playing from the orchestra, befitting this propulsive, thought-provoking production.