Review by Priscilla Issa
The narrative of Verdi’s “La Traviata” centres around the fallen woman and explores the potency of love in surmounting societal divides of class and wealth. Regrettably, love proves unable to conquer all, and Violetta ultimately succumbs to her tragic destiny, although she departs with a heart touched by happiness. The Opera Australia production reached its zenith in moments of conflict and tragedy. While Sarah Giles’s directing adhered closely to the traditional formula that defines Traviata as a classic and audience favourite, the opera was performed with precision, unwavering conviction, and a whole lot of passion. It was a safe yet gratifying start to the Opera Australia 2024 season.
Immersed in the opulence of 19th-century grandeur, the opening scene radiates the sensational glamour of Parisian Salon party culture. Every prop, every costume, and every golden detail in the set design exudes richness. Despite the visual lavishness, Charles Davis’s staging maintains an uncluttered simplicity. This approach allows the performers to exhibit their impressive vocal artistry and enables the audience to become enamored with and emotionally moved by Violetta Valéry's fate.
Samantha Clarke approached Violetta's drama and vulnerability with exceptional sensitivity. Her crystalline tones, effortless top notes and pianissimo, and incredible vocal intonation and resonance at climactic junctures were impressive. She is a master at demonstrating the dramatic subtlety required for portraying a woman leading the dual existence of a renowned courtesan torn between love and the impending specter of death. Beginning with the lively 'Sempre Libera' aria, Clarke convincingly portrayed Violetta’s independence and passion for the good life. In the final act aria, 'Addio del passato', she skillfully created an illusion where the set appeared to dissolve, allowing the audience to experience a kind of one-woman show. Guided by the brilliant conducting of Jessic Cottis, the orchestra embraced every nuance of Clarke’s voice. It's no overstatement to say that a pin drop could have been heard at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, as the entire audience held their breath.
Tenor Kang Wang portrays a compelling Alfredo Germont, whose expressions of love for Violetta sit in stark contrast to his father's demands. Wang exhibited exhilarating and faultless vocal prowess during the Act 1 drinking song, where he, accompanied by the Opera Australia chorus in fine voice, commanded the stage. He sings with fervor, possessing a warm and rich tenor that exudes a charming smoothness and a keen sense of musical phrasing. The most convincing aspect of his portrayal of Alfredo was his humiliation of Violetta as he violently threw playing cards at her feet. A truly gut-wrenching moment. A little more attention to the chemistry between Alfredo and Violetta in vulnerable moments could have enhanced Wang’s performance.
Phillip Rhodes embodied a proud and steadfast Giorgio Germont, delivering a warm, consistent baritone with finesse. The Act 2 duets with Violetta, where he pleads with her to leave his son to protect his family's name, were profoundly touching. Rhodes’s velvety voice harmonised seamlessly with Clarke’s. This Act represented one of the most heartbreaking and emotional moments in the production. There was not a dry eye in the theatre to be found.
Special mention goes to the dancers and chorus, who infused their singing and dancing with vitality and sincerity. It is no small achievement to generate this level of energy in such a vast space. The emphasis in Cottis’s conducting on rubato during languid moments and exuberance during more spirited moments, as well as her confidence in the pit made for a rousing and assured performance by the Opera Australia Orchestra.
Giles's production was a delight for both seasoned opera enthusiasts and newcomers. The enthusiastic applause and prolonged standing ovation were well-deserved. Bravo!