LA TRAVIATA - HANDA OPERA ON THE HARBOUR, Opera Australia at Mrs Macquarie's Chair, March 24-April 15, 2011. Photo: Emma Matthews and that chandelier; the company watch the party fireworks - by Lisa Tomasetti.
After years of doubt, gloom, muttering, nay-sayers, trials and tribulations - and more pre-publicity froth and bubble than even a champagne factory could stir up - Opera Australia's open-air mega-production of La traviata by Guiseppe Verdi opened on Saturday night to "oohs!" and Aaahs!" and a final, spontaneous standing ovation. It's been touch and go, however, and for Opera Australia it still is. Nevertheless, at the end of Sydney's wettest summer in decades, the weather gods apparently had no choice but to smile on artistic dictator Lyndon Terracini - whose insane idea this was.
Despite preceding days of drizzle, blah and storms, a rain-truncated general and a shivery dress rehearsal, Saturday's opening night arrived. It was accompanied by a perfect blue sky, golden sunset and not a breath of wind to stir the giant Swarovski crystal chandelier that forms the central visual element of the Brian Thomson-designed set.
It was the kind of evening that has Sydneysiders swooning at their own good fortune. It is, of course, a spectacular setting for anything: on the edge of Farm Cove with a backdrop of the city skyline, the glittering sails of the House and the black silhouette of the harbour bridge contributing world recognition to the scene. Add that to being high up on the curiously elegant white railed, astroturf and potted ficus temporary terrace bar, looking down on the bleachers and out across the harbour while sipping something chilled and bubbly, it's a celebration in itself. And the show still an hour away.
Despite much scepticism and the general lack of support from the forces of Nature, the opera itself - when it began at dusk - was the real deal. Director Francesca Zambello has devised a production that works as a spectacle within a spectacle yet also retains its essence as one of the most intimate, emotion-laden works in the repertoire. As well as exhilarating performances, this success owes a lot to the Thomson set. It's supposed to be a mirror but actually looks more like giant pewter tea tray - whatever - the Escher-like shallow steps of the "frame" surround a skewed diamond shaped raked stage that keep attention focused on the action, despite passing fruit bats and ferries. With Violetta's death bed front and centre, draped in sombre but sexy black satin sheets, again the attention is focused remarkably easily, although an electrifying Emma Matthews made it difficult to look anywhere else.
There are two things about the production that could have brought it to grief; one being the attention-grabbing chandelier, the other, the radio mikes essential for the singers to work in the outdoor setting where the orchestra is invisible in the bowels of the floating stage. As it turned out, the omnipresent light fitting did not hog the limelight. Instead, because of the actual vastness of the harbour setting - vaulting starry sky, glittering city lights, the rhythmic "thwup split" of wavelets on the pontoons and an unfortunate wedding disco somewhere in the Botanic Gardens - the 9m x 9m crystal construction provided a bridging connection between the two worlds, and miraculously, was unobtrusive to the point of invisibility until called upon the perform.
The radio mikes were the second miracle. Purists pursed their lips, but frankly, such lemon-suckers would be unhappy without a nice bit of pursing. On this occasion they pursed in vain. Sound designer and audio engineer Tony David Cray should have been on stage for the curtain calls: he did a brilliant job. The balance between orchestra and voices was superb and the singers sounded natural and marvellous, from Jonathan Summers' glorious baritone, to the increasingly rich Matthews soprano, or Gianluca Terranova's charming tenor.
The sound - accurate and clear - came into its own as the evening and the drama progressed. As the courtesan Violetta, Matthews was thrilling as an actor-singer. She began as the bodacious flirt, partying and revelling in the love of young Alfredo (Terranova); her demeanour changed to rage and disbelief when his patrician father (Summers) forced her to give him up for the sake of social niceties; and by the time she realised in her heart that she was dying, Matthews' abandoned Violetta was a heart-rending creation. Many were in tears and the audience was intimately bound up with her every emotion, from light hearted happiness, to fury to tremulous despair, through the true quality of the sound design. In the overall scheme of things, it was possibly the most significant technical achievement and brilliantly served both music and performers.
Tess Schofield also contributed significantly to the pleasure of the show, setting it firmly in Mad Men territory. Snappy, shiny suits for the men, lots of flared skirts cut on the bias for the women and some fun stuff for the party-goers - camp matadors and tambourine-banging gypsies, a pair of drag queen social photographers - and all manner of beautifully detailed work, lent unmistakeable class to the entire company.
Yet over all the hookah and fireworks (yes, of course there are fireworks, it's Sydney) the pervasive influence of uber-director Francesca Zambello means that while the spectacle is spectacular, the music and singers are not sacrificed to misguided populism. Whatever might be said and dreamed by Lyndon Terracini, this is not Andre Rieu territory; the mulleted violinist's extravaganzas are from another planet, far far away. This La traviata outdoor circus is as good as any conventional indoor production and through the presence of Emma Matthews and Jonathan Summers, it reaches exceptional heights.
(A second, but equally first-rate cast of soloists alternate - Rachelle Durkin, Ji-Min Park and Warwick Fyfe take over from Matthews, Summers and terranova.)
One sour note that may well be fixed by now - or should be - was the notable absence of any management of the crowd post-performance. Mrs Macquarie's Chair is not alive with taxis at 10.30pm and it's a long walk. It couldn't be that hard to alert the taxi firms to the long queue of hopeful and weary punters. It could take the shine off an otherwise glorious evening.