Review by Thomas Gregory
For beginners to Opera, such as myself, there are few better entry points than Verdi’s extremely popular, La Traviata. It has a famous opening brindisi (drinking song) that even the most plebian would recognise and its simple story of choosing love over honour is taken from Alexandre Dumas fils’ “Camille”.
Verdi’s opera is a personal tragedy, which opens as many tragedies do - by warning us that our hero will have no happy ending. Violetta is dying of consumption, and the 19th-century Parisian party girl is determined to live life to the fullest before she shuffles off her mortal coil. Falling in love was not part of her plan.
She falls in love with the quiet Alfredo, a plain man who has put her on a pedestal from the moment he saw her. Still, when Alfredo’s father comes to convince Violetta to break up with his son - for their relationship damages the honour of the family, and therefore his own daughter’s future, Violetta chooses to sacrifice her own happiness.
The consequences of this decision may not quite end in further death, but it also leads to no happiness. While the opera ends with a sweet final embrace, it is wrapped in the bitterness of Violetta’s inevitable death.
This simple tale is perfect for an Opera audience. While surtitles are offered to translate the Italian libretto into English, they are not required to follow the story. Between the well-directed performances and Verdi’s famous score, it is easy to follow along. Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Renato Palumbo, provides a more-than-competent rendition of Verdi’s music, while the cast and chorus are filled with talented professionals.
Opera Australia had previously performed this grand piece for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour late last year and has revived it for performances in Sydney and Melbourne this year. For it, the Australian-Mauritian soprano Stacey Alleaume returns as Violetta, a woman doomed from the start of a relationship she never felt she deserved. Alleaume stands out as a consummate performer, offering much more than her beautiful voice. Her version of Violetta is a woman who never believes herself worthy of love, and one willing to put aside her short happiness for a “pure girl”’s own future. Her words are filled with passion, loathing, or regret, with a clear comprehension of the poetry that escapes her lips. Alleaume quite easily holds the audience in rapture during her lonely solos on an otherwise empty stage. However, an oft-unrecognised ability to avoid stealing the scene from others is also there - she is the star, but the one who lifts up the rest of the show, rather than stand on others’ shoulders.
Ho-Yoon Chung plays Alfredo Germont, the passionate and naive lover of Violetta. Having played the character before with Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, Chung has a firm grasp of the skills required to pull off some of the more complex songs in La Traviata. It is unfortunate that this strength sometimes only highlights an immaturity in acting, with Chung providing far more melodrama than any other cast member. Perhaps it is due to this less-than-perfect stagecraft that the chemistry between Alfredo and Violetta never appears to be fully realised on stage.
In a performance that nearly stole the show, Internationally acclaimed baritone Mario Cassi plays Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father and the man destined to bring suffering to Violetta’s life. Far removed from playing a villain, Cassi’s performance is filled with ego-less concern and true empathy. While one may not agree with Cassi’s Giorgio, he is a character easy to relate to. The scene in which Giogio must convince Violetta to leave her love is by far the most powerful of the night, with Alleaume and Cassi bringing out only the best from each other.
While La Traviata is a personal tragedy, with much of the action centring on only a few characters, there are moments of great spectacle worth mentioning. As what appears to be the entire cast fills the stage in the opening scene, the party atmosphere is palpable. The crowd of performers move as one in a space that is thick with passion and enthusiasm. The chorus may sing and dance as one but the individuals are far from carbon copies. Each person who takes the stage is a fully realised character whose stories one suspects might be just as interesting as the two lovers we have come to watch. During a later party scene, a moment of comic relief is provided by a group of “matadors”. This includes Opera Australia’s dance captain (and local boy) Ned Zaina providing an extremely short but infinitely memorable dance routine. It is during these beguiling and chaotic scenes that we also fully appreciate the work of costume designer Peter J Hall. His period pieces offer individual flourishes that allow each performer to stand out while, in almost a contradiction, the ensemble maintains the cohesion of a society that follows the fashion of the day closely.
While it is the music and performance that holds attention for the fast-paced two hours that Traviata is, what first draws the eye may in fact be the set design. The State Theatre has never been transformed as beautifully as it has been for Traviata. The parlours in which parties and dinners are held are as opulent as they are detailed. Rich in colour and texture, they capture the decadence of the mid-19th-century aristocracy with a sense of authenticity rarely seen outside of massive-budget Hollywood films. The fact that Yeargan can make such rooms appear so full while providing comfortable room for dozens of performers to move about is incredible.
However, as much as the parlour scenes may be more complex to arrange, and filled with far more detail, it is Yeargan’s more “sparse” sets that will forever be remembered. While no effort is spared in producing a backdrop of intense realism you’d more likely expect to see in Russian literature, it is the small touches that take them to the next level. During the already-praised scene between Giorgio and Violetta, autumn leaves fall. Just one or two every minute, but enough to make the setting a living, breathing entity that matters to the scene. The dark tragedy of the final scene is only accentuated by the realisation that the dark and empty room furnished only by two chairs was once the bright and colourful parlour of the opening act. With the support of Nigel Levings’ lighting design, Yeargan reminds us of the loss suffered by our heroine without ever distracting us from her current plight.
In short, the design of La Traviata is a masterpiece that rivals Verdi himself. That the performers are then able to make themselves worthy of such a setting is a testament to how simply amazing everyone who played a role in this show is.
Opera in Australia is a funny business. What some may think is an archaic art, filled with tightly locked gates and pretentious followers, is quite the opposite. There’s a passion, enthusiasm, and love that cannot be ignored. While people flock from around the state to see Hamilton, whose libretto is just as difficult to follow despite being in English, they would do well to see how we reinvent the classic musicals of yesteryear simply by making the very best version there can be. There’s no need to change the 170yr old lyrics or provide a gimmick like setting the show in nineties California. Verdi’s La Traviata is an incredible opera, and Opera Australia is an incredible company. That is all the reason you should need to go and see this immediately.
Image Credit: Jeff Busby