LA TRAVIATA, Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 3 February-1 April 2017. Photography by Keith Saunders
When last reviewed here in July 2013, the production, by Elijah Moshinsky and starring Emma Matthews had been around since 1994 and stagenoise said, in her wisdom, “Can't help thinking, however, that OA boss Lyndon Terracini might be thinking it's time for a new one; and Gale Edwards would be the obvious director to realise it”.
As it happens, Edwards has since made a memorable La Boheme for the company as well as the Handa on Sydney Harbour Carmen which will be revived later this summer. And to celebrate 200 performances by OA of La Traviata – since 1978 – back comes the Moshinsky staging; from the gasps of the first-timers next to me on opening night, it’s as sumptuous to them now as it was 20+ years ago. And yes, it does look fabulous!
This time there was also the extra excitement and anticipation for the debut an Australian stage of Albanian super-star Violetta, Ermonela Jaho. She didn’t disappoint. Visually and aurally spectacular, Jaho is the consummate singer-actor whose relationship with the role is visceral and thrilling. When Sempre libre provoked a spontaneous outbreak of musical theatre type applause it was clear the night would be special.
It began before that, however, when the delicate overture was played with unusually nuanced sensitivity. It was immediately clear the always splendid OA orchestra was on top form (conductor Renato Palumbo and prepared by Brian Castles Onion). The general excellence followed through to the chorus whose role in La Traviata is pivotal to the personal drama of the story.
The opera, (Verdi’s masterpiece with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave) is based on a play – La Dame aux Camellias – adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils (son of The Three Musketeers author). The original “dame” was a young country girl turned courtesan and salon hostess, Marie Duplessis. She was gorgeous, smart and for a year was Dumas’ mistress. She died at 23 of consumption (tuberculosis) and a grand tragedy was born.
The operatic story is more complex and, in 2017, has considerable social and political resonance as the young woman is forced to give up her lover Alfredo (Ho-Yoon Chung) because their scandalous romance threatens his position in polite society. More than that, his father Giorgio (Jose Carbo), makes it Violetta’s responsibility to give up her chance at love because of the effect it will have on another even younger woman – Alfredo’s younger sister. It seems absurd and cruel but class and sexism are still with us and women are still stuck in a world of inequality.
Violetta leaves Alfredo and resumes her life of being arm candy for rich men. Alfredo is embittered by her betrayal and leaves Paris. But before long Violetta is dying and impoverished, her only support coming from her faithful maid Annina (Natalie Aroyan) and Dr Grenvil (Gennadi Dubinsky). Her society friends – Dominica Matthews as Flora and Adrian Tamburini as moneybags Baron Douphol – have long vanished.
By the time Alfredo returns it’s almost too late, although there is time for sublime music and performance from Ermonela Jaho as Violetta briefly rallies at the happy sounds of a festival in the street beyond her window and by Alfredo’s declaration of love forever. Alas.
The performances in this latest season of La Traviata are superb beginning with Ermonela Jaho as already said. She has power and strength across the range and it means the softest passages and most emotional moments are as clear and rich as when her voice soars over the orchestra. She has made the role her own over some 100s of performances and it seems the rest of the cast rise with her. In particular Jose Carbo is an even better Germont than he was four years ago; his voice sonorous and full of colour as he fully inhabits the role.
Ho-Yoon Chung started the evening in an almost subdued fashion but grew into a passionate and true Alfredo. He isn’t on the same level as Jaho but is already and electric presence. Natalie Aroyan is a fine Annina, while Dominica Matthews imbues her society madam with flair and style. The remainder of the name cast are as good as one could hope and the end result is exciting, full of passion and fire and finally, heartfelt sorrow.
La Traviata has a long season and continues with first Lorina Gore then Emma Matthews taking their turns as Violetta. Both are at the top of their own vocal and dramatic forms and it will be marvellous to have them back. Nevertheless, to have a visitor such as Ermonela Jaho is to underline why bringing in the very best can be so important for home-grown singers and for the audience. Don’t miss it – whether you’ve seen it before or are just coming to opera: this is a glorious version of a great work. Bring a hanky or tissues.