15 May 2014 at 3.49pm | Comment on this article
Our 'How to Stage an Opera' series offers different perspectives on the practicalities of staging an opera, from the initial research through to the final performance. Here we look at how Richard Eyre's traditional production of an operatic favourite finds new ways to intensify the story.
La traviata is the most frequently performed opera of today, and arguably the most widely known (a propagation aided by its appearance in films such as Moulin Rouge and Pretty Woman). For many it is a gateway into enjoying and understanding opera. Is a director's responsibility, then, to new audiences or to old? Should the priority be to tell Verdi's story plainly, or should it be to suggest new interpretations? Is it possible to do both?
Richard Eyre's 1994 production for The Royal Opera is a literal staging. He locates the action contemporary with the opera's 1853 premiere – as Verdi would have done himself, had he not been forced by censors to locate the story a century earlier. Eyre and his designer Bob Crowley follow Verdi's stage directions closely, and ensure that every item referred to in the libretto – a table, a window, a letter, a camellia – is physically present onstage.
A literal staging, but not quite a realistic one. Eyre and Crowley present Verdi's naturalistic drama through a pane of enhanced theatricality. Everything is exaggerated: the gold-plated luxury of Violetta's party in Act I, the bourgeois respectability of Act II scene, the menacing hedonism of the following scene and the desolate poverty of Act III. The operatic intensity of Verdi's writing finds its partner in Crowley's sets, in a heightened presentation that not only clearly signposts the progressions of Verdi's drama, but suggests an individualistic response.
Crowley's four sets are pointedly distinct – a direct response to the structure of the opera, where Verdi depicts Violetta's decline through strikingly different vocal styles for the heroine, itself a device that places poignant emphasis on Violetta's decline. The only explicit continuity occurs in Act III, where the looming, peeling shutters that dominate Violetta's sparse sickroom are familiar from Act I, where they lurked behind the gleaming golden edifice of her party. Eyre thus states that Violetta's life in Act I was artificial, based on the allure of gold; he also emphasizes the reality of what we learnt in Act II, that Violetta has sacrificed everything to be with Alfredo; and most of all he heightens the truth that Verdi has woven in from the very beginning of the opera – that Violetta’s death is inevitable.
Eyre takes advantage of practical considerations to further his interpretation. In Act I the chorus are crowded into the small, coin-shaped space, bustling around poufs and divans – so intensifying Violetta and Alfredo's brief time alone – while the steep rake of the stage creates a sense of hedonism, abandon and drunkenness. The dramatic events of the party scene in Act II scene 2 preclude the use of a rake, and so instead the disorientation is created by foreshortened scenery above, which also suggests opulent seediness, an underground den of vice in which Alfredo is horrified to find his Violetta. The Spanish theme that Verdi introduced to the scene, rather than seeming disjointed as it so often can, here inspires a bull ring set that intensifies the macho stand-off between Alfredo and his rival Baron Douphol.
The sweeping curves and distorted perspectives of both party scenes are in strong contrast to the scene they frame, Act II scene 1, which takes place in Violetta and Alfredo's country home. The simple furnishing and pastel colours, and the sunlight streaming through the tall windows, make clear this is an idyll far from the frantic city. The back wall placed far downstage makes a shallow, wide acting area, focusing our attention on the brilliant dramatic duet Verdi creates for Violetta and Germont. This enclosed space also allows Eyre to create a further contrast with the set for Act III, where the large empty stage is yet another reminder of the ultimate isolation of death – and adds further poignancy to Violetta's final pleas to God, and her feeble anger at the injustice of her fate.
In Eyre's production Verdi's story always takes precedence. But as Eyre and Crowley tell the story they find sophisticated devices that advance Verdi's music and suggest new subtleties in the drama. Follow the next in our series, where we see how Robert Carsen's production tells the powerful story of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites with almost no sets at all.
La traviata runs from 16 January–19 March 2016. Booking is now open.
The performance will be relayed live to cinemas worldwide on 4 February 2016. Find your nearest cinema showing.
The production is generously supported by Coutts.