In Praise of Amateur Opera – Bel Canto Opera’s La Traviata

Verdi, La Traviata: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Bel Canto Opera, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 16.6.2011. (RJ)

We live in harsh economic times when arts funding is facing large cuts. My great worry is that the most expensive of the performing arts, opera, will soon become solely the preserve of the rich – in the UK, at any rate. This seems a shame when the appetite for live opera is growing. But you really need a six figure salary to consider a seat at Covent Garden these days (unless you happen to be an opera reviewer!) and Britain’s other professional opera companies are faced with the dilemma of having to raise ticket prices or else lower standards.

Opera for all, alas, looks like becoming a thing of the past; the cost is just too high. However, one way around the problem could be the pro-am principle. You have pro-am golf tournaments featuring both professional and amateur players, so why not pro-am opera with professional singers in the principal roles supported by an amateur chorus and musicians. Before opera-goers start protesting, they should bear in mind that even the much lauded Welsh National Opera used a chorus of amateurs in its early days.

These thoughts are prompted by a recent performance I saw of La Traviata put on by the Cotswold based Bel Canto Opera. This is one of a dying breed of local opera companies which once used to break even on its productions, but now has to work out how much it can afford to lose, given the difficulty in attracting sponsorship. Bel Canto’s conductor, William Bell, has probably conducted more operas than I have eaten hot dinners and is able to assemble a committed group of singers from local choirs and musicians, some professional and semi-professional.

After seeing a professional performance at Longborough the previous evening, I was prepared to lower my critical standards (such as they are!) for this Verdi performance, but I didn’t need to. The performance was more than competent; it was excellent. The orchestra and chorus were in fine form but what made the performance stand out was the quality of the principal singers.

The success (or failure) of La Traviata rests largely on the shoulders of the soprano singing the role of Violetta, and Christina Sampson proved to be an inspired choice. She was everything a Violetta should be – fragile, waif-like, utterly convincing in the role and with a wonderfully expressive voice. She could belt out the drinking song ‘Libiami ne’lieti calici’ with gay abandon yet revealed her innermost thoughts and fears with such sensitivity in ‘Un di felice eterea.’ I note that Christina has sung a lot of oratorio, but hope that she will change track, since her acting ability makes her a natural for the opera stage.

Telman Guzhevsky, described as an Armenian born Israeli tenor, was the perfect foil as Alfredo. Passionate, impetuous, prone to anger and terribly mixed up, he wore his heart on his sleeve and bared his soul in some powerful arias and duets. Colin Campbell was a stern and unyielding Giorgio Germont with a commanding voice, but seemed rather out of place. I’ve always regarded Alfredo’s father as an anachronism, very set in his old -fashioned ways, as we learn from his aria ‘Di Provenza il mar’ – but here was a man dressed up to the nines in clothes from the latest Burberry catalogue. He looked far more in touch with the modern age than anyone else!

There was an interesting layout with a temporary stage in front of the orchestra and conductor, which might have presented problems, but didn’t. It even accommodated some lively dancing in Act Two, Scene Two, yet despite the confined space none of the dancers fell off. The whole performance was a splendid effort, and though the orchestra may have sounded too strident in places, this was a minor blemish, and I was glad to have been in the audience to have my heart strings pulled.

Roger Jones