If you’ve never seen traditional opera – as opposed to the mucked-about-with stuff in pubs we also love – or never been to Covent Garden, Richard Eyre’s grandiose, beautiful-to-look-at, lush La Traviata would be a great place to start. The melodies are lovely without reminding you endlessly of TV commercials, it’s an immensely accessible boy-meets-girl story where his father tries to split them up, there are colourful setpieces with matadors and gypsies and Carnival in Paris and a diva dies in a white nightie at the end. What’s not to love?

Everything is on a grandiose scale with soaring, finely detailed sets by Bob Crowley: we first meet Violetta Valéry reclining on a couch in a rotunda the size of a basketball court before she throws the kind of glittering Bollinger-drenched party Patsy Stone might envy: she’s the ultimate emancipated live-fast-die-young power chick except she has 19th century tuberculosis, so eventually she will. Marina Rebeka, who previously stood in for Angela Gheorghiu, is on great form as the robust party-thrower and business-like householder but so visibly pleased to be starring at Covent Garden she seems to be smiling right up to her demise.

As her lover Alfredo, handsome ex-footballer turned Andalucian tenor Ismael Jordi filled the riding breeches perfectly and they made a convincing young couple, even if his vocal transitions were sometimes uneven. Although this isn’t an overly sentimental Traviata, you still don’t want them broken up by his father, Germont. Sung with such power, clarity and dignity by Franco Vassallo it may be hard even for Placido Domingo to outdo him when he pops in to play the role on 28 May and 3 June. He also seemed a bit flirty with Violetta, but that’s probably not in the plot.

The first and last acts are surprisingly short and with Mark Minkowski taking the orchestra at a good pace even the hour-and-ten middle act just bowls along. The gaming room set with its rich red trappings and ornate gilded ceiling is still showy after twenty-one years even if all the Spanish dancing tomfoolery looks a little dated.

The ENO was criticized by aficionados for its no-interval pared-down minimalist version earlier this year, so it’s good that at least Covent Garden knows how Traviata should be done.


This review originally written for Londonist.com