NZ Opera’s LA TRAVIATA charms in Wellington

NZ Opera presents:
Giuseppe Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA

Cast: Lorina Gore (Violetta) / Samuel Sakker (Alfredo Germont)
David Stephenson (Giorgio Germont) / Rachelle Pike (Flora)
Jarred Holt (Baron Douphol) / Andrew Grenon (Gastone)
Kieran Rayner (Marchese) / Wendy Doyle (Annina)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (director – Michael Vinten)
Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Emmanuel Joel-Hornak

Director: Kate Cherry
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Designer: Christine Smith
Lighting: Matt Scott
Choreography: Jesse Wikiriwhi

St.James’ Theatre, Wellington

Friday 11th July 2014

(subsequent performances 13th, 15th, 17th, 19th July)

Call it what you will – an operatic masterpiece, a tried-and-trusted favorite, or a sure-fire tear-jerker – La Traviata again exerted its considerable emotional and theatrical “pull”, this time on the hearts and minds of an appreciative audience at the St James’ Theatre on Friday evening.

This was opening night of the production’s Wellington season, the Opera Company having first taken the show to Auckland a few weeks’ previously, to a good deal of acclaim. From the moment the curtain rose during Orchestra Wellington’s playing of the properly frail and tremulously-sounded Prelude, one’s attentions were properly caught and held fast. And this was due to a production whose direct and coherent accord between sounds and imagery was brilliantly established at the outset and never seriously faltered throughout the evening.

One didn’t realize until the final act the full significance of the brief opening vignette and its setting, played out during the Prelude. Violetta, the opera’s heroine, clothed in ghostly sick-bed-like garments, rose from either sleep or death and confronted the image of herself, resplendent in gorgeous red, dressed for a party and waiting for her guests – the figures were separated by the parameters of a giant glass cube, one which served throughout both to give a theatrical kind of “shape” to the action, and to represent the boundaries confining the characters in the drama.

Here the wraith-like Violetta, next to a fallen chandelier lying at an awkward angle on the floor, was outside the cube watching herself through the glass as the beautiful courtesan she once was, the “fallen chandelier”, one supposes, representing her spent radiance, a kind of glory come to grief, and a contrast with the cube’s suggestion of a beauty in a gilded cage.

The Prelude having sounded its last few soft notes, the ghostly Violetta departed, the chandelier was slowly lifted, and the cube revolved around to its open side – the party could now begin! Throughout the evening the production demonstrated a similar sharply-etched focus on the story’s essentials which allowed the music and the text to suggest to the observer whatever elements of time and place seemed most appropriate.

For instance, I thought the cube a brilliantly-employed structure in this respect, facilitating the different “character” of each of the acts, while binding the overall story together with certain themes suggested by its physical appearance. Thanks to expertly-modulated lighting, the structure’s sparkling glitter, both in a reflective and transparent sense, at once glamourized and laid bare the shallowness of the social interactions of the First and Second Acts which defined Violetta’s world as a courtesan, while those same transparencies underlined the vulnerability of her and her lover Alfredo’s situation, their desire to start a life anew together thwarted by pressures exerted by their all-too-publicly-proclaimed union.

So, while Act One and the second scene of Act Two were all glitter and sparkle, their counterparts expressed vastly different scenarios – the opening scene of Act Two evoked a house in the country, the cube beautifully allowing a suffusion of light throughout Violetta’s and Alfredo’s living-space, via glowing backdrops of panels featuring flower patterns saturated with bright, warm orange hues. As the scene proceeded, and Violetta’s happiness was gradually turned to despair and grief the backdrop colours changed, orange fading and giving way to blue – so simple and yet so affecting!

As for Act Three, we were suddenly presented with that opening, Prelude-accompanied vignette once again, with Violetta (the real Violetta, this time, ill, and close to death) in her ghostly, sick-bed garments lying next to the fallen chandelier, this time one of several of varying sizes, the surrounding hues having no warmth, no comfort. The cube, of course conveyed the privacy of a bedroom, but also the sense of something skeletal, stripped of flesh, bare and unremitting. What radiance occasionally flickered did so coldly and mercilessly – the sense conveyed by the scene was of a place of departure (“Alone, from this world…..”).

All of this wonderful work by the “creative team” (sorry – an awful phrase) deserved to be matched by stellar musical and theatrical performances from the performers both on stage and in the orchestra pit – and by and large the singers and musicians delivered the goods. In fact, musically, I thought this Traviata very satisfyingly of a piece, with the cast, conductor and orchestra players exhibiting a kind of rapport that never lost its “charge”, and in places positively radiated across the footlights and into the auditorium. One constantly sensed a kind of fusion among singers and instrumentalists tingling along the whole spectrum of musical impulse.

This was no better exemplified than by episodes like the frisson of heartless gaiety generated by the chorus of party-goers’ farewell to Violetta in the First Act, by the superbly-realised clarinet solo accompanying Violetta’s letter-writing in Act Two, and then by Violetta’s affecting declaration to Alfredo of her love for him – soprano and orchestra at full stretch, here – at the end of that scene. Then in the following scene came Alfredo’s and Violetta’s very different but equally gut-wrenching condemnations and protestations, strongly supported by supporting voices and orchestra, and in the final scene, the chilling depth of the death-tolling basses and baleful brass when Violetta gives Alfredo her portrait as a gesture of farewell at the work’s end.

So – what about those singers, then? Again, I thought they were musically very satisfying – Lorina Gore as Violetta I fell for in almost every way, singing and acting, as she seemed to do, with every fibre of her being charged with impulsiveness and commitment. Hers were high notes which poured out emotion – not just beautiful noise – and together with her Alfredo, tenor Samuel Sakker, she brought out the music’s great tenderness as well as its raw feeling. That was what I enjoyed most about hers and Sakker’s interaction – a sensitivity when duetting, almost an innocence of interaction (more of which, shortly).

I must mention Gore’s exciting high E-flat at the end of “Semper libre”, one not sanctioned by the composer, but not inappropriate, given Violetta’s euphoria in response to Alfredo’s attentions. It’s a note that singers tend not to try, mostly wisely (in my favourite non-Callas recording of the work, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, the gorgeous Roumanian soprano Ileana Cortrubas makes a brave if squally attempt at the ascent in an otherwise beautiful performance; though I must point out that Callas herself made several all-out, heart-in-mouth launches into the vocal stratosphere at this point in her various recordings, always effective, if not note-perfect!)….in Gore’s case I thought it again not the loveliest sound but an intensely musical, intense and dramatic one, a risk well taken!

I enjoyed Samuel Sakker’s Alfredo increasingly as the evening went on – I thought his singing accurate and musical to begin with, but not especially lovely – however, he either grew on my sensibilities or his tone warmed and sweetened as the story and character developed. He certainly had sufficient vocal heft for the role, but I was especially charmed by the tenderness of much of his duetting with his Violetta – especially touching were some of those First-Act exchanges, the sweetness and slight awkwardness of the boy-meets-girl scenario nicely-caught.

Unfortunately, that was where it all seemed to stay all through the evening as regards any hint of sexual chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo – their “clinches” in the succeeding acts were, to put it mildly, too chaste by a country mile, their body language conveying to each other (and to me) little of their singing’s animal passion or any hint of mingled physical intensity. Perhaps such reserve ran in the family in Alfredo’s case, as his father, Giorgio Germont, played by David Stephenson, came across as an intense and strongly focused, upright character, but ultimately something of a dry old stick – his physical response to Gore’s heartfelt “Embrace me as if I was your daughter” was out of its time, regulation PC to a fault. To be entirely fair, the gesture was of a piece with the character’s manner, business-like and unsentimental, even if Verdi’s music for Germont père suggests layers of warm feeling left physically undisturbed by Stephenson’s accurately-sung, but dry-voiced and rather detached stage portrayal.

Without wishing productions to indulge in what seems a current penchant for excessive bodice-ripping evidenced in some recent opera DVDs I’ve seen, I do feel that Traviata is a work in which one can’t underplay a certain level of romantic passion on the stage – in this case, as the saying goes, it surely comes with the territory. Lest I be accused of making too much of this, I quote a contemporary critic of the work who wrote, “The love depicted by Verdi is voluptuous and sensual, totally lacking in that angelic purity found in Bellini’s music….” I would think that says it all, really…..a certain abandonment in the lovers’ passion, a degree of rawness in their mutual desperation as the tragedy takes hold – neither state was, for me, given sufficient expression by the characters.

However, such was the musical strength of this production, the physical coyness of certain of these stage interactions didn’t fatally spoil our delight – the chorus work, by comparison, had terrific gusto in almost everything they did, apart from one or two “wandering strays” at a couple of points – especially praiseworthy were, I thought the sequences during the second party scene where firstly the women (as gypsies) and then the men (as matadors) of the chorus had different character dances to perform while singing, both of which came off splendidly, with touches of real panache! But the more conventional opening party scene also had plenty of musical bite and energy, the groups swirling around and about most satisfyingly while singing of their life of pleasure, and making their vapid progress from party to party.

Underpinning all of the musical trajectories from the pit was Orchestra Wellington, responding to conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak with, by turns, sensitivity, whole-heartedness and vigour. I’ve mentioned some of the most telling instrumental touches, but must pay tribute to maestro Joel-Hornak’s pacing of the work and to his flexible and sensitive direction of his singers during the music’s many tenderly heartfelt moments – his was the kind of direction that always seemed to give the music the time it needed and the musicians sufficient space to realize the same.

A friend who’s a bit of a “Traviata-buff” came with me to the performance – “A marvellous card-game scene! – I haven’t seen or heard better!” he exclaimed, afterwards. “But those two (Violetta and Alfredo) didn’t seem to know one another terribly well!” We hadn’t actually conferred, being too busy with ice-creams and friends at half-time – but he obviously felt the same way as I did. It would be interesting to learn what other people felt – like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. But I’m sure the strength and conviction of the music-making would have, for most people by far, enabled this production to carry the day, with great credit to all concerned.


















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