“Opera is the story of women’s undoing”, lamented French philosopher and feminist Catherine Clement in 1979. In a highly controversial book, she combed through opera’s story lines, pointing out the “infinitely repetitive spectacle” of their heroines driven to despair, illness and death. And it’s the male characters, she said, who drive them there.
But what if these men – lovers, jealous fathers, enemies – were removed from the equation altogether? How would our feelings differ, if the driving forces behind a woman’s downfall were members of her own sex? Robin Pietà, director of Secret Opera, seeks the answers with Trousered Traviata: a new version of Verdi’s La Traviata (whose very name means ‘the fallen woman’) in which the all main characters are women.
It’s a subtler sex change than the director’s previous all-male Carmen, which tipped Bizet’s erotica on its head with gay orgies, nudity and a flamboyant contralto as Carmen. “We’re not trying to be controversial,” Pietà explains. “The story is the same. The main characters just happen to be female.” Violetta’s lover Alfredo (now Alfreda, played by mezzo soprano Megan O’Leary) is a confident young woman in a suit, a symbol of women’s sexual emancipation in early twentieth century bohemian Paris, where the production is set.
Performed virtually prop-less at St John’s Church in Fulham, a soft red glow illuminates the stage as Violetta (soprano Jennifer Walker) entertains friends at her Paris salon. Alfreda is among them: she slowly coaxes Violetta’s affections away from her current lover, Barone Douphol, and into a relationship with Alfreda herself. But when Alfreda’s mother (mezzo-soprano Bronwen Stephens) finds out that her daughter is involved with a former courtesan, she forces Violetta to break it off.
The production is a tender, subdued take on Verdi’s opera, whose characters’ sexual desires are discreet at the best of times. It doesn’t provoke, as we were warned – Alfreda and Violetta do little more than gaze at each other affectionately, almost like sisters. And yet it challenges the role of women in operatic fiction: an often chauvinistic world to which we have grown so accustomed.
If it is always the men who drive women to their ill fate, perhaps the most interesting gender swap here is Giorgio (now Giorgia) Germont. In the original, Germont is the catalyst in the crumbling of the young lovers’ relationship, and here it is Bronwen Stephens’ cold, inpenetrable, unsmiling Giorgia who exploits Violetta’s self-doubt and vulnerability. Stephens is utterly convincing as the iron-fisted mother, reminding us that where class battles are concerned, women are just as capable of inflicting insult.
Sung in Italian without subtitles, our potential to truly scrutinise the story with this interesting re-casting is somewhat limited. Pietà’s staging is simple and effective, drawing attention to characters as individuals by having others freeze motionless as one sings. The energy wilts at times, saved by soprano Jennifer Walker who illuminates the whole production – her clear voice is as soothing and dependable as a soft pillow. And pianist Ezra Williams performs such justice to the reduced score, he could convince anyone that Verdi wrote it for piano alone.
For me, La Traviata boils down to the power struggle between men and women. Removing that social tension certainly reveals subtler emotional workings at play (Violetta’s insecurity, her compliance with Alfredo’s mother for the sake of reputation, the importance of keeping up appearances). But Trousered Traviata doesn’t provoke me in the same way as the original. Perhaps it’s precisely the way these stories conflict with modern politics that forms a large part of our engagement with them. Clement even comments on this paradox in her book, wondering how she can continue to love the operas that stand at such odds with her own beliefs.
Thank goodness for companies like Secret Opera, who challenge our expectations and actually make us think about the stories we consume without resistance. Trousered Traviata doesn’t make sweeping feminist statements, but nor does it intend to. It’s an experiment. And while it might lack the musical meatiness of baritones and basses, overall this is Verdi’s La Traviata as it should be: exquisite, gentle and tragically poignant.
Secret Opera is performing Trousered Traviata, alternated with a traditional La Traviata, until Saturday 7 March. To book tickets, click here.