Opera Australia’s 200th celebratory performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a tireless jewel of melodic beauty and poignant tragedy that carries its audience on a wave of pathos. Filled with an intense yearning for things to be other than they are, this magical opera evokes great joy and sadness.
Home to some of the most famous tunes ever written including the ‘Brindisi’ drinking song and the heroine Violetta’s ‘Sempre Libera’, Act 1 opens on to a party scene of bourgeois excess. The consumptive courtesan Violetta – sung by Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho – has returned to society after a visit to a sanatorium and is introduced to Alfredo (Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung) who confesses his love for her. There is much hustle and bustle against the indulgently excessive stage design and the vibrant chorus ‘Libiamo ne lieti calici’ is a joy to hear. The two leads seem a little hesitant at first, and Chung in particular appears overly focussed on the conductor which makes his performance somewhat mechanical – his ‘Brindisi’ needs more joy and less worry. There is also a distinct lack of attraction between the two would-be lovers. The audience are nevertheless ecstatic about Jaho’s ‘Sempre Libera’ and lift the roof in appreciation after her final stratospherically high E flat at the end of the aria.
Act 2 scene 1 – Alfredo and Violetta are now living together ‘in sin’ and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont (Jose Carbo) convinces Violetta to leave the relationship in order to restore the family honour. Whilst such attitudes seems ludicrous in 2017, the duet that unfolds between Germont and Violetta is pure bliss and reality is suspended. Carbo’s mighty voice is extremely beautiful and in possession of great tonal and dynamic variety and although he looks a little young for the role he is otherwise perfect. His renditions of ‘Di Provenza il mar’ and ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ are elegant and sophisticated. Jaho’s singing in the duet is incredible; she manages the most beautiful sustained pianissimo, so soft it seems that if it were any softer there would be no sound at all. Her portrayal gathers strength and we can’t help but fall in love with the ill-fated Violetta. Chung also appears on stronger vocal footing with a warm and secure tone, and once he discovers his lover’s betrayal, is far more convincing as a spurned lover than a love sick one. His acting builds in momentum and culminates in a convincing denunciation of Violetta.
Act 2 scene 2 returns to Paris for a party at Flora’s (Dominica Matthews) house and the quick scene change from the starkness of the country house to the opulence of the party scene provokes the lady next to me to exclaim “How did they do that!”. The set is visually ravishing and a celebration is in full flight with card playing, singing and dancing. Chung really finds his feet in this act and with his energetic acting a more powerful vocal tone also arrives; his portrayal of the love spurned Alfredo is excellent. Violetta draws us further into her tragic web with beautifully intimate singing and incredible depth of character portrayal. Jaho is no longer performing Violetta, she is Violetta.
Act 3 – Violetta is on death’s doorstep and waiting for Alfredo’s return. Giorgio Germont has revealed Violetta’s sacrifice to his son and both men are overcome with remorse. The minimal stage design of this act is a stark contrast to the lusciousness of the party and forebodes the impending tragedy. The carnival frivolities heard outside on the street magnify the futility of hope and when Alfredo finally returns the lovers are joyfully reunited. Jaho has drawn us further in with each ensuing act and in these final moments she owns the opera and the audience. Her incredible voice has the power to uplift and sadden, with dynamics ranging from breathtaking quietness to thrilling fortissimos. The vocal tone is equal parts warm and round, bright and brilliant; a limpid and elastic syrup of honey tones emanating from her. Violetta dies and the opera ends. The curtain comes down and then goes up again to reveal a Jaho frozen in character unable to release herself from the grip of the tragedy. The curtain goes down and up again and this time Violetta has released Jaho and the audience rise to their feet in explosive appreciation of this amazing artist.
Other performances of note include Samuel Dundas and Adrian Tamburini as the Marquis and Baron respectively and Gennadi Dubinsky as Violetta’s doctor. Natalie Aroyan is a refined Annina, and John Longmuir as Gastone and Dominica Matthews as Flora provide excellent support to the protagonists and the drama. The Opera Australia chorus is also in top form, sounding fresh and buoyant and breathing new life into these relentlessly performed choruses.
I love this opera and in spite of its story line problems for a modern day audience, there is nothing that compares to the magic of Verdi’s La Traviata. Conductor Renato Palumbo has lovingly drawn out the best of the score, although it’s a shame that the orchestra is below the stage as it so often muffles the sound. How wonderful would it be to finally see these acoustic problems dealt with so that the opera theatre can finally be what it was meant to be. This aside, Director Elijah Moshinksy’s production is a visual and sensory feast which creates ‘a vivid picture of life in the Paris salons of the 19th century’. The refurbished set and costumes sparkle with intensity of colour and attention to detail and beckon us to a bygone era.
Opera Australia presents
Director Elijah Moshinksy
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 3 February – 1 April 2017