Monday June 17, 2024
LA TRAVIATA
Review

LA TRAVIATA

By Diana Simmonds
January 3 2024

LA TRAVIATA, Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 2 January-14 March 2024. Photography: Keith Saunders: above - party time; below - Samantha Clarke and Angela Hogan; below again - Phillip Rhodes and that frock

The sumptuously traditional Elijah Moshinsky production of La Traviata has delighted OA audiences, with lashings of red velvet and ormulu, since 1994. His death (1946-2021) must surely have prompted thoughts of renewal and with this co-production between Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia, and West Australian Opera, we’ve got exactly that. The 170-year-old Verdi masterpiece is newly minted in a visually minimal, elegant design by Charles Davis, and directed with electrifying inner vision and verve by Sarah Giles.

From the opening moment, Giles shows us what to expect. Just like the fabled beginning of Lindy Hume’s Carmen (1992), Giles uses the overture as a filmic “cold opening”. The very first notes reveal a party in courtesan Violetta Valery’s (Samantha Clarke) Paris apartment. It’s all elegant gowns, white ties and tails, champagne flutes, and merriment. However, close attention reveals darker truths. A maidservant is pawed and worse by a “gentleman”; other sexual transactions and excess are beneath every surface. Meanwhile, in her boudoir, Violetta is extricating herself from a portly, passed-out prince of society after payment-in-kind. It’s rightly disconcerting and sets up the tone of the night.

Young socialite, Alfredo Germont (Kang Wang), falls in love with Violetta and she is persuaded to see the unlikely chance of a kinder life. They will live in the country and she will be adored and respected. Foolishly, they forget the demands of their patriarchal society: she cannot be allowed to upset the social apple cart. Like Mimi in La bohème, she must die – tragically, picturesquely, and conveniently (consumption was a handy disease) – and thus preserve the status quo.

This is put to her by Alfredo’s father Giorgio (Phillip Rhodes) who insists she see how selfish it would be for her to ruin his daughter’s forthcoming marriage. However, in an otherwise brilliant production, in this scene, there seems to be a lack of confidence in the power of the opera’s storytelling, so when Germont is telling Violetta the director deems it necessary for the same to be simultaneously enacted in the garden beyond.

LA TRAVIATA

Similarly, in the end, Giles conjures a breathtaking, beautiful moment as Violetta dies. She rises from her chaise and her “spirit” walks into endless light. It’s obvious from the pieta-like tableau – with the doctor, Germonts père et fils, and faithful Annina gazing sorrowfully down at the empty chair – that they are looking at Violetta. So to then have a luckless substitute skip in to take her place is unfortunate. It undercuts an otherwise profound moment of human tragedy and hope.

There is also one awful frock that Violetta suffers along with consumption. It’s a calf-length thing of five frilly tiers of floral print. It has no relationship with any other costume, nor to the era of Dior extravagance referenced by designer Davis. What?!

These puzzles aside, this “new” La Traviata is a triumph. Conductor Jessica Cottis makes her OA debut in dazzling style with the OA Orchestra and Chorus sounding rich and dynamic. They maintain an excitement throughout when not throttling back to delicate tenderness. Thrilling.

Director Giles has drawn glorious performances from all principals and the busy chorus. In her OA debut, Samantha Clarke is a revelation as Violetta. The voice is glorious and powerful, colourful and controlled. She is also a convincing actor and her passage from louche goddess to dying waif is heartbreaking.

LA TRAVIATA

As spunky Alfredo, Kang Wang not only looks the part but is blessed with a powerfully expressive tenor voice. Moreover, he is immersed in the role’s vocal highs and dramatic lows. His stage presence is handsomely compelling.

OA’s hardworking mezzo Angela Hogan is splendid as Violetta’s bestie Flora Bervoix. She too looks the part in naughty black stockings and provocative manner. She’s an unusually strong foil and contrast for Violetta. In a supporting role often seen as that of a much older woman, Petah Cavallaro is a touching presence as Violetta’s servant Annina. Her sorrow has so many layers. Clever casting.

As Alfredo’s father Giorgio, the humanity Phillip Rhodes brings to his attitude to Violetta is unusual and makes his demands of her more painful – because he realises what he’s asking. The even darker side of the alpha male is seen in Baron Douphol, Violetta’s most recent sugar daddy. He’s an odious toad and Richard Anderson’s portrayal is splendid!

Altogether, this La Traviata is one for the ages and all ages. Sarah Giles and Jessica Cottis have scraped off the patina of a century’s victimhood with a dazzling approach to some of opera’s sweetest music, and a woman who finally gets to do it for herself. Recommended without reservation.

 

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