Opera / La Traviata, Opera Australia. At Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 14. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.
The first offering chosen for Opera Australia’s 2024 summer season by guest creative director, Lindy Hume is a new production of “La Traviata” directed by Sarah Giles and shared with Opera Queensland, State Opera South Australia and West Australian Opera.
While it is hoped that Opera Australia audiences will still be offered opportunities to enjoy revivals of its treasured Moshinsky production of this opera, Sarah Giles’ production, provides a refreshingly new perspective on one of the most popular operas in the canon.
With this production, Giles explores the role of courtesans in a decadent society, without placing her production in any specific period. Designer Charles Davis has taken advantage of this to provide lavish costumes that hint at the fashions of Charles James, Dior, Vivienne Westwood and Valentino.
During the overture the audience is privy to a post-coital scene in Violetta Valery’s bedroom where Violetta (Samantha Clarke) awakens with her lover, Baron Douphol (Richard Anderson) still asleep beside her. Her guests are already assembling in the adjacent rooms.
Before taking his leave, Douphol presents Violetta with a stunning gown. As the audience watches on, a maid assists Violetta into the gown in which she dazzles her guests as she enters the adjoining ballroom to greet them.
It is the first of several captivating stagings devised by Giles that allow the audience insights into the practicalities of Violetta’s life as a courtesan.
Later, as the party draws to its conclusion, Violetta realises she has fallen in love with the dashing young Alfredo Germont (Kang Wang) but unwell and exhausted, collapses on to her bed in her bedroom as her guests begin to leave.
Her maid helps her out of the gown, freeing her from the restrictive undergarments. Then alone in the now-empty ballroom, Violetta reflects on her lifestyle, launching into the famous aria, Sempre Libera, in which she declares her decision to live life to the full.
All this takes place in Davis’ ingenious setting which depicts three rooms of Violetta’s house, allowing the audience to view the action in each of the rooms at the same time.
Although this allows more focus on Violetta, and is particularly effective for the staging of the scenes between Violetta and Alfredo, the ballroom scenes, where the guests are confined to the back of the stage, look uncomfortable and crowded.
Australian soprano, Samantha Clarke, makes a particularly impressive Opera Australia debut as Violetta. Her luscious soprano voice, considerable acting skills, elegant demeanour and ability to display her glamorous gowns with the flair of a catwalk model, combine to make her portrayal of the glamorous courtesan transfixing.
However, her final scene, for which she wipes away her make-up in full view of the audience, dons a shabby nightdress and waits for death in a room stripped bare of her possessions, is ruined by an inexplicable directorial decision to have another actor, also in full view of the audience, replace her on the chaise on which she has just died, surrounded by the grieving Alfredo, his father, her doctor and her maid, so that she can rise up and walk off into the sunrise.
Rising young Australian/Chinese tenor, Kang Wang is also impressive, and excellently cast, as Violetta’s impetuous young suitor, Alfredo, particularly in the scene where devastated by Violetta’s apparent rejection, he humiliates her in front of her friends.
The changes of emphasis in Giles’ staging provides opportunity for NZ baritone Phillip Rhodes, as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, to nuance his interpretation towards a more sympathetic depiction of the reasons compelling Germont’s demands that Violetta give up Alfredo, even though the inclusion of actors acting out those reasons upstage provided an unnecessary distraction.
Throughout, the supporting roles were superbly interpreted, with Angela Hogan as Violetta’s confident, Flora Bervoix; Richard Anderson as her overbearing patron, Baron Douphol; Shane Lowrencev as Doctor Grenvil and Petah Cavallaro as her servant/companion, Annina, being particularly outstanding.
Conductor Jessica Cottis, making her first appearances in the Opera Australia orchestra pit, kept the production moving at a cracking pace, impressed with her attention to detail, which elicited responsive confident performances not only from her principal singers but also from the Opera Australia Orchestra and Opera Australia Chorus.
Although not without flaws, this attractive production offers fresh insights into a familiar and favourite opera. It is superbly performed by an outstanding cast, and certainly deserved the enthusiastic response it received from its audience.
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