The omnipresent La Traviata continued its drive through the 2011/2012 Royal Opera House season on Monday with its third cast since the fall. It’s not unusual for repertory opera companies to switch things up along the way in a long run of a warhorse like La Traviata especially in a production as old and familiar as ROH’s 1994 Richard Eyre staging! which has already been filmed twice: once with Angela Gheorghiu in her breakout performance early in her career and more recently with Renée Fleming. This season’s Violettas have included Ailyn Perez and Marina Poplavskaya thus far. Anna Netrebko was scheduled for two performances later in January until she dropped out recently due to a reported foot surgery. Her likely replacement will be Ermonela Jaho, the Albanian soprano who is already scheduled for all the rest of January’s performances alongside Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Paolo Gavanelli as Giorgio Germont. (Vittorio Grigolo watchers may note that he is still scheduled to sing two of the Alfredos at the very end of the run.)
But while multiple cast changes can keep an oft repeated show fresh, it can also create problems. One of the most common of these is not enough rehearsal time for a new cast in a show that is already up and running, which seemed to be the major problem on Monday. Many of the cast had difficulty staying in synch with conductor Maurizio Benini and eyes were glued to him throughout. His pacing could turn plodding at times. The blocking appeared unfamiliar to some of the cast and there was virtually no chemistry between any of the principles throughout the evening. The revival's direction this month is credited to Paul Higgins but if he had anything to contribute to this performance, it appears he didn't have enough time to do it in.
The good news is that some of these issues may get better as the last set of these performances comes along. Jaho has a compelling enough voice with adequate power and agility. Her acting was stiff in the first two acts and it wasn’t until the big finale that she seemed to show up dramatically. Act III Violetta’s aren’t uncommon (Fleming is one as well) but it goes without saying that one can’t spot them the first time around until that home stretch. She handles the dying well but never really gave us a sense of Violetta’s fragility before then, even when Alfredo confronts her in Act II. It sounded like she was coming at everything vocally at full-bore, and I often wished she could have delivered a little more in the way of dynamic range sound-wise. The most satisfying performance of the night went to Paolo Gavanelli. He’s a treasure (and will be performing alongside Placido Domingo in L.A. next month in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra), and, although no one in the cast was particularly interactive with him in this rather stoic performance, he was a pleasure to hear. Stephen Costello meanwhile is having a very high profile season following appearances opposite Netrebko’s Anna Bolena in New York. I like him a lot as a singer, but he lacked a certain darkness of tone here and instead emphasized Alfredo’s more youthful attributes. And while there’s a place for that in Traviata, I felt the lack of direction and chemistry between him and Jaho left me puzzled through much of the evening as if Alfredo was trying to convince himself he loved Violetta as much as he was trying to convince anyone else of it. Overall it is not a necessary La Traviata to see at this point, but if you’re a big Gavanelli fan, things may solidify to a better state later in the run, which continues through January 25.