New Traviata a Mixture of Innovative Ideas with Crude Banality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, La Traviata (sung in English with surtitles): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Gianluca Marciano (conductor),  The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 19.11.2014. (RJF)

Violetta: Hye-Youn Lee.
Alfredo Germont: Ji-Min Park.
Germont père:  Roland Wood.
Baron Douphol: Peter Savidge.
Flora Bervoix:  Victoria Sharp.
Doctor Grenvil: Dean Robinson

Director: Alessandro Talevi.
Set and Costume Designer: Madeleine Boyd.
Lighting Designer,:Matthew Haskins.

La Traviata was the second of a great trio of operas in what has become known as the Verdi’s middle period. Numbered nineteen in the chronology of his twenty-eight opera compositions it is now his most popular, coming in in second place of all performed operas. It was premiered at La Fenice, Venice on March 6th 1853, a mere six weeks after Il Trovatore at the Apollo, Rome. This overlap was caused by the delay in completing the latter following the death of its librettist, Commarano, before he had completed his work. Consequently Verdi composed parts of both operas contemporaneously, quite a challenge considering the difference in key, and particularly in the orchestral patina, between the two.

The first of this great middle period trilogy had been Rigoletto, which, like La Traviata two years later was premiered at Venice’s La Fenice theatre. As with its predecessor, Verdi had great trouble with the local censors over the subject, which they considered immoral. He threatened to take his bags home before a compromise was reached on which the theatre partly reneged. It was his most contemporary opera to date and he wanted that reflected in contemporary costumes; to his chagrin, the theatre did not respect the arrangement. Verdi believed that fact along with a dying obese consumptive in act three, causing hilarity in the audience, contributed to what he called the fiasco of the first night. He had his revenge when the opera was restaged at a smaller Venice theatre a few months later to great acclaim and a subsequent status that has never been lost.

This is the first new staging of La Traviata that Opera North has offered in well over a decade. In doing so they have handed the job of director to the young South African Alessandro Talevi. I have found his productions both imaginative and perverse in equal measure, and so it is here. The opening prelude has Violetta staring at the moon that becomes a photo play on an internal examination, endoscopy if you like, of her lungs. Before that becomes evident to the cognoscenti the film might be confused with Paramecium swimming in pond water rather than pneumococcal bacteria. The prelude to act three continues the theme with x ray like pictures of a pair of lungs, black and diseased! Great idea, yes, but with clarity not confusion and debate among the audience as to what it is all about! Likewise, those not knowing anything about the demi monde of France’s Second Empire, and Dumas’ fils semi autobiographical novel, might also have thought that the bacchanalia of the opening act, looking like an orgy in a brothel, was the manner of the lifestyle of the demi monde and the kept ladies. Not so; it was all conducted with taste and élan. Please will directors read around their subject? Likewise the act two scene two matadors’ ballet was cheapened by being played as though it was linked to Bizet’s Carmen with placards being carried pointing out who was who and what was happening. Madeline Boyd’s set and costumes might be more fin de siècle than 1853, but Bizet didn’t get round to Carmen until 1875, dying shortly after the premiere. As to the tasteless banality of backstage spectators during Violetta’s final hours and their applause at her death, words fail me!

Two young South Koreans sang the two leading roles, Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta and Ji-Min Park as Alfredo. Although both showed promise, neither was wholly satisfactory with Hye-Youn Lee sounding shrill and over parted in a theatre of The Lowry’s size in act one, her coloratura strained and losing focus. She was much better in act two and particularly effective in the more plaintive music of the confrontation with Germont père. Ji-Min Park’s Alfredo was a curious mixture of crude phrasing and virile tenor singing. However, neither of the two Koreans has learned how to caress a Verdian phrase, the last act duet Parigi, o cara crying out for just that to add gloss to the basic pleasing lyric sound of both their voices when not under strain. Perhaps an Italian vocal coach might help. Roland Wood as Germont père knows what Verdi phrasing and tonal fullness is about. His physical stature, and tonal refulgence, set him a class apart in his realisation of his role with a very fine plea to his son to return to Provence. Many have forgotten his achievements in Verdi when a student at the RNCM! The lesser parts were adequately sung, with Annina sung by a substitute whose name did not carry far into the theatre at the announcement!

Whilst the Opera North chorus were their usual vibrant selves, the orchestra under Gianluca Marciano played with a rather understated and unduly suppressed volume at times, (at least from my seat in the side stalls) tasteful to excess. Verdi’s opera has periods of brio that seemed lacking on occasion.

Robert J Farr

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