New Zealand Opera's decision to present Verdi's celebrated La Traviata - albeit rebooted - as part of its 2014 season may seem a conservative choice in some quarters. But as a sucker for a good drinking song I eagerly awaited its Wellington premiere this week and, sitting amongst an enthusiastic and near full-house at the St James Theatre, I wasn't the only one.
The ability to write popular, catchy music set to stories with hefty and provocative themes like slavery, imperialism, and sexual mores is Verdi's trademark. Variously translated as ‘the fallen woman' or ‘the one who goes astray', Verdi presents us with a tale of lovers ruined by money and the need to keep up appearances. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas' novel The Lady of Camellias, La Traviata's heroine Violetta Valéry (Lorina Gore) is a consumptive Parisian courtesan. Stuck in an endless social whirl she falls, after some resistance, for Alfredo Germont (Sam Sakker), an infatuated admirer who has declared his love for her. As the two escape the decadence and superficiality of Paris for the wholesome countryside, Violetta's chequered past looks set to be redeemed through their virtuous love. Happy for a while, the relationship soon unravels when Alberto's father Giorgio (David Stephenson), begs Violetta to leave his son to save the family's reputation. Reluctantly, Violetta agrees, but leaving Alberto means she has no choice but to return to her old way of life. Alberto reacts with jealousy to this apparent betrayal but after the truth is revealed to him the lovers are finally reunited on Violetta's death bed as she succumbs to the illness that has shadowed her throughout life.
With direction and set design being just as important as the execution of the music and characterisation of the players, I admit to feeling slightly nervous as to how the NZO were going to stage La Traviata. Fortunately, under the creative leadership of Kate Cherry (Director), assisted by Jacqueline Coates, and with Christina Smith (Set & Costume Design) and Matt Scott (Lighting Design) we are presented with a simple yet imaginative and tasteful production that successfully compliments Verdi's melodrama. A shimmering oversized two-sided cube acts as the manoeuvrable stage upon which scenes unfold; be it a glistening ball, or sombre and poignant bedside farewell. Clever lighting and sumptuous costuming also act to draw the audiences' eye into the ensuing tale of woe. The production featured many strong vocal performances including the large Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus who sung with gusto. Clever choreography meant they enlivened the party scenes rather than just taking up real estate on stage. In the Pit, thanks to conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornek, Orchestra Wellington provided superb instrumental support that was at times revelatory.
As Violetta, Lorina Gore was alluring and exhibited a flexible and pure-toned vocal quality. Though slightly tight sounding in her Act I aria "Ah, fors'è lui", Gore opened up and sang brilliantly. I enjoyed listening to her triumphant free-flying high notes and the achingly tender pathos of her Act IV farewell to life "Addio, del passato", was superb. The remaining two leads were equally attractive vocally; Stephenson's strong and secure vocalism as the fatherly Giorgio was a great asset. Sakker, as the lovelorn Alfredo, had a rich warmth to his tone, and I would say was the strongest of the three principals.
Yet what was absent from this production was searing theatrical drama, energy and passion, which meant the production didn't get out of second gear - it felt like the opera was a dog champing at the bit to get off its collar, but not quite managing to. I was looking for an emotional depth and chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo, but both seemed to fall short of truly embodying their characters. Regardless, La Traviata is an immortal Verdi classic, and overall, the production, though not superb, is well worth seeing. I know there can be many reasons why a trip to the opera doesn't have broad appeal, with this production there are few barriers to entry. Make the effort to see it....Bravo Verdi.
La Traviata runs at the St James Theatre in Wellington till Saturday July 19th
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