Wellington Opera presents:
VERDI – La Traviata
Violetta – Emma Pearson
Alfredo – Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Germont – Philip Rhodes
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)
Sara Brodie (director)
St James Theatre, Wellington
Saturday 9 July (and until 16 July)
(Review by Steven Sedley and Anne French)
Opening night of La Traviata, in the refurbished St James. The house was full and there was an excited buzz when Artistic Director Matthew Ross came out in front of the curtain to make an announcement. His message, that three players had fallen ill with Covid-19, was not amplified and consequently very hard to hear. Tenor Oliver Sewell, who was to sing Alfredo, was to be replaced by the cover, Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono (who was himself to have sung Gastone). His place on stage would be taken by Nino Raphael, the Assistant Director. The knock-on was that Gastone would be sung by Xavier Krause (the cover from the chorus), and he would be represented on stage by Sara Brodie, the Director. Hannah Catrin Jones was also ill with Covid, so Flora would be sung by Hannah Ashford-Beck, also from the chorus.
‘We have a show and the show must go on,’ said Matthew Ross. It sounded brave. How exactly would it work?
Next, the words La Traviata were projected on the curtain, followed by a translation: ‘The Fallen Woman’, and then ‘Amore e morte’, ‘Love and death’. I’m not sure who this was for. Most of the audience seemed to be regular opera-goers, who hardly need the reminder. Perhaps it was intended to make the opera accessible for the young people in the audience who don’t know the story and can’t read Italian. In that case, you would first need to explain to them the term ‘fallen woman’ and the moral universe of the nineteenth century.
This is a matter of historical record. Verdi wrote the opera in 1853. It was based on La Dame aux Camellias, an enormously popular novel published in 1848 by Alexandre Dumas fils, as well as events from Verdi’s own life – he put something of his current girlfriend into the character of Violetta. Verdi conceived the opera as a contemporary (i.e. 1850s) story about the lives of ordinary people (a sophisticated lady, an immature and irresponsible young man, his concerned and caring father), unlike the heroes, kings, dukes, and princes in the operas of the previous generation.
But the authorities at Teatro La Fenice in Venice where it was premièred were outraged by the edgy libretto. They forced Verdi to set his opera at least 100 years in the past – about 1700. It wasn’t until the 1880s that it received a modern setting.
The curtain rose for the overture showing a cold, grey, empty stage dominated by four large free-standing wall panels, complete with deep skirtings and traditional architraves, meant to suggest Dior. The artistic team had decided to set the opera in a semi-modern style! A huge round mirror is set in one of wall panels. A woman wearing a full-skirted red dress is seated against the wall; a man in a dark business suit arrives. The woman lifts her skirt and matter-of-factly rolls down her stocking. Why? To pose for him? He appears to take a photograph on his phone, hands her something, and leaves. She resumes her pose. The chirpy second theme of the overture chirrups on.
The beautiful woman in the red dress was of course Violetta (sung by the ineffable Emma Pearson). She held the very first few moments together as Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono got his bearings, singing from a music stand set up in the box closest to the stage on the right-hand side (stage left), with his eyes fixed on conductor Hamish McKeich. But almost immediately Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono was in complete control and singing gloriously. Meanwhile, on stage and wearing a black Covid mask was Nino Raphael, miming the most unconvincing Alfredo you could imagine. Sara Brodie, the Director, was also busy on stage during the party scene, miming Gastone. Hannah Ashford-Beck did a great job as Flora. She had benefited from a week’s production rehearsals because Hannah Catrin Jones went down with Covid-19 earlier than Oliver Sewell.
Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono is only 24. He grew up in Flaxmere, sang at home and at church, and developed his chops with Project Prima Volta. He has already won some prizes. This year he is supported by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. Those dames know what they are doing! He has a gorgeous voice and on this challenging opening night he sang Alfredo superbly. If only he had been allowed on stage. His singing was musically and dramatically convincing. Alfredo is young, impulsive, and a bit of an idiot, but utterly sincere in his love of the glamorous, older, generous Violetta.
The original Alfredo, Oliver Sewell, has a large, bright tenor voice. But Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono is another kind of tenor entirely. His voice is warm and lyrical, with that beautiful Polynesian bloom – a bit like the young Pati brothers before they went to Wales. His sincerity shone out from his music stand in the box. He deftly managed all the rapid emotional shifts that Verdi required. Whether he was singing of his love for Violetta or his regret about his foolish actions, he was completely believable. His duets with Emma Pearson were sublime. To pick up Alfredo at the last minute and sing it flawlessly makes me think he has a great career ahead of him.
Emma Pearson was outstanding as Violetta. She held the show together. She has a versatile and agile voice, with a huge colour palette, equally capable of convincing coloratura and gorgeous pianissimos. Violetta is a big role – she is on stage almost all the time – and it requires excellent acting. Pearson was as lovely to watch as to listen to, and her acting was as credible as the production would allow, shifting from confidence to compassion and vivacity to vulnerability as Verdi demanded. It helped in Act 3 that she looked convincingly frail and feverish. So many Violettas look altogether too bonny to be credible. (Why did she have to sleep on the floor to die?)
Phillip Rhodes also has a very fine voice and is a superb actor, but one of us felt the part needed more gravitas. Germont Senior is an older man, very kind, understanding, but concerned for his children – his feckless son, his daughter whose future will be ruined if Alfredo continues to live in sin with Violetta. His dignified character was insufficiently projected, perhaps because the direction limited his ability to project it. Sam McKeevor as the Marchese was excellent and convincing. Sam Downes (Barone) has a big voice but was merely stolid.
The Wellington Opera Chorus looked to be mostly opera students, so their sound had the freshness of youth. They were confident within the limits of the production. Properly they should have reflected the well-heeled, spoiled young men who were Alfredo’s circle of friends. Fortunately neither the grey suits nor the ridiculously skimpy costumes in Flora’s ‘exclusive club’ in Act 2 (more like a scene from Cabaret) affected their singing, which had the characteristically warm, full-blooded operatic sound that Verdi requires and that Chorus Director Michael Vinten is known for.
Orchestra Wellington were in the pit under the experienced orchestral conductor Hamish McKeich. Their playing was very sensitive, full of gorgeous textures, with a sublime oboe solo and some great horn playing.
When I asked afterwards what the dumb show during the overture was supposed to signify, I learned that the opera has been set in the 1950s (which explains Violetta’s full-skirted, knee-length dress, though not the grey suits). The perfunctory man in the dark suit but no doctor’s bag was the doctor, administering a therapeutic injection, rather than the punter I had taken him for.
What is the problem? It’s simple. By the 1950s, tuberculosis could be completely cured by antibiotics. If Violetta doesn’t have to die of TB in Act 3, there is no plot. Likewise the concept of the ‘fallen woman’. It is intrinsic to the story but makes absolutely no sense in Paris in the 1950s. The moral universe that the opera inhabits is clearly that of the mid-nineteenth century. Setting it in the 1950s makes no dramatic sense.
Musically the performance deserves very high praise, with fine singing and excellent orchestral playing. (One of us thought the design and lighting were great, but objected to the direction. The other disliked the costumes and staging.) Someone who doesn’t know the opera or is unfamiliar with the social mores of the nineteenth century probably wouldn’t have noticed. Book now, before it’s gone!