It wouldn't be like the German director Peter Konwitschny not to provoke just a little. So his take on Verdi's most popular opera, for English National Opera, shouldn't surprise all that much. Cut and spring-cleaned, it runs at under two hours, without even an interval for us to drown our sorrows at the bar. And there's plenty to be sorrowful about, not least Violetta's futile desperation, for life and love, intensified by this accelerated journey towards death.
The set, meanwhile, could hardly be more simple, consisting of just a chair and several rows of curtains. These serve as an entrance to the heroine's psyche, revealing it layer by layer, as Violetta's love for Alfredo gradually forces her to drop her defences. At the climax, they collapse altogether, leaving her exposed and broken, amid the wreckage of her dreams. But that's not all Konwitschny has to say – he even introduces a new character. This is Alfredo's sister, whose marriage prospects are apparently threatened by Violetta's reputation – a normally unseen side story, though one central to the plot. What we see here, however, is an insipid excuse for a creature, clearly terrified of her tyrannical father, Giorgio.
As a whole, it is an innovative, thought-provoking staging, to which the singers are a mixed blessing. In her European debut, Corinne Winters sings sweetly as Violetta, but doesn't quite have the vulnerability to embody the role. Ben Johnson is endearing as a geeky, bumbling Alfredo, while Anthony Michaels Moore is charismatic, if slightly vocally-strained, as Giorgio. Making each moment count, conductor Michael Hofstetter breathes some fire into the orchestra's belly.
'La traviata' runs at ENO until Mar 3 2013.