Ekaterina Bakanova - Soprano - I
La Traviata, Royal Opera Covent Gaden, London
“One hell of a way to make a Royal Opera debut”,
There are always advantages to seeing a show at the end of its run rather than the opening night: the cast are on top of their vocal performances and their dramatic relationships, and with first-night anxieties out of the way, the musical co-ordination between orchestra pit and stage has had time to refine and relax.
Which is what we in the audience might have expected on Saturday night at the last show of this season’s La Traviata at the Royal Opera House. But that ain’t what happened. As Director of Opera Kasper Holten explained, the evening’s scheduled Violetta, Sonya Yoncheva, had woken up unwell and by lunchtime was forced to cancel her appearance. Which left the Royal Opera in something of a pickle, to put it mildly. Astonishingly, however, they found a replacement from within their ranks: the Russian soprano Ekaterina Bakanova who was that morning also in the Opera House rehearsing the role of Musetta for her Covent Garden debut in Puccini’s La Bohème, on 9 July.
With only five hours notice, Bakanova agreed to sing Violetta that evening. In fact she had a ticket for that evening’s performance anyway, so why not just leap on stage and take part instead? She did at least know the role, having sung it at La Fenice in Venice last year, but there was the small matter of having to learn a whole new production, the ins and outs of where she was supposed to sing on stage, how she would react to her co-principals, how she would negotiate her relationship with the conductor, and to deal with the psychological fact of making her debut in one of the world’s biggest opera houses in probably the most famous and one of the most demanding roles in the whole repertory. And she had no more than five hours in which to do it all.
And she did, spectacularly. Except it wasn’t simply the sense of a job well done that the standing ovation she got was recognising. It was miracle enough that Bakanova managed the evening without a slip from Verdi’s score and, seemingly, without putting a foot, a facial gesture, or a prop in the wrong place in Richard Eyre’s luxuriant production. But she did something else. She had the audience spellbound from pretty well her first notes, and her scintillating vocal power in the big numbers such as Sempre Libera brought the house down.
Bakanova brought a no doubt partly adrenaline-fuelled dramatic intensity to the part and embodied the desperation, dramatic extremity, and existential plight of Violetta more completely than any other performance I have seen. This was an essential, forceful reminder of the visceral verismo of Verdi’s music. She gave herself so completely to Verdi’s heroine that she made Violetta seem as if she was being created for the first time.

Who knows? Saturday could turn out to be a night in Covent Garden’s history where a new operatic star just might have been born.

(Tom Service, Theguardian.com)

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