La Traviata sensation clears BBC Two schedule

19 June 2015

As part of the BBC’s Classical Voice season, BBC Two is screening La Traviata: Love Death and Divas on Saturday 20 June at 9pm. Below, director and producer PETER MANIURA recalls an earlier, memorable Traviata on the same channel some 20 years ago.

Georg Solti pictured in 1994 | Getty Images

In December 1994 BBC Two cleared its regular schedules in order to transmit Richard Eyre’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata from the Royal Opera House live.

What caused the then controller of BBC Two, Michael Jackson and Alan Yentob then running BBC One, to make such an unprecedented move? After all, a new production of even the world’s most popular opera is not normally deemed sufficiently important to jettison a prime-time, mid-week schedule on a major channel.

The clincher was the sensational central performance of the young Romanian soprano, Angela Gheorghiu

This Traviata was different. First of all it was conducted by Sir Georg Solti, one of the greatest maestros of the twentieth century and the man who in the 1960s had brought the Royal Opera to the highest international standard as Music Director.

Secondly, it marked the opera directing debut of the then director of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre and his production was a fine one.

But the clincher was the sensational central performance of the young Romanian soprano, Angela Gheorghiu, in the title role as the consumptive heroine Violetta Valery.

What made Gheorghiu’s performance exceptional was an almost perfect union of voice, acting ability and physique du rôle as can be seen in our extract from the end of Act One - the celebrated and notoriously challenging aria, ‘Sempre libera’.

Angela Gheorghiu
Georg Solti in rehearsal at the Royal Opera, 1963 | Getty Images

Angela Gheorghiu performs La Traviata, Royal Opera House, 1994

Gheorghiu sails through all the technical challenges, confidently tackling the coloratura - fast runs, trills and high notes - which indicate her character’s increasingly excited state and which have brought many a lesser soprano to grief.

On that night a star was born... the huge audience it reached on BBC Two that night took her career to a new level

On that night a star was born. Even though Gheorghiu had previously sung at Covent Garden, there’s no doubt that Eyre’s production and the huge audience it reached on BBC Two that night took her career to a new level.

On a personal level it was one of the most memorable nights of my life as a television director.

Michael Jackson and Alan Yentob decided to televise the production, after it had opened, with just a few days’ notice and so the whole thing had to be mounted from scratch, without the months of planning that would normally have preceded a major live broadcast of an opera.

There wasn’t even enough time for one director alone to prepare a camera script and so the task was shared between myself, directing Acts One and Three, and my colleague and mentor Humphrey Burton tackling Act Two, both of us working through the night to be ready for the big day.

Angela Gheorghiu at the New York Met, 2005

BBC Two commissioned a special trailer to publicise the event on air, which showed the relevant page of the Radio Times being torn up and a new schedule written over it in felt-tip pen - effective but most unpopular with colleagues at Radio Times!

A special trailer to publicise the event ... showed the relevant page of the Radio Times being torn up and a new schedule written over it in felt-tip pen

Everyone was on their toes on the night, the performance on stage was electric and despite our limited preparation time, we managed to catch the energy and finesse of the show on camera.

In between the individual acts of the opera, BBC Two ran elements of its previous schedule. And I’d been so engrossed in preparing the opera over the previous few days that on coming back into the outside broadcast truck ready to direct Act Three, I discovered that BBC Two was in the middle of Top Gear!

So since then my favourite programme junction has always remained 22:30 on BBC Two on the 8th of December 1994, when Top Gear handed over to La Traviata live from the Royal Opera House!

La traviata: Love, Death And Divas, presented by Tom Service and Amanda Vickery, is on BBC Two at 9pm on 20 June and afterwards on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Angela Gheorghiu performs at a Memorial Concert to Luciano Pavarotti at Little Petra, Jordan in 2008 | Getty Images

Love, Death and Divas

Tom Service introduces Amanda Vickery to the principle characters of the tragic tale, as they arrive in Venice for a performance of La Traviata at the Gran Teatro La Fenice.

Georg Solti in rehearsal at the Royal Opera, 1963 | Getty Images