Sunday, May 25, 2014

Victorian Opera
20th May 2014, Her Majesty’s Theatre

Violetta Valéry, the celebrated but accursed whore of Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 opera, has partied, loved and died a tragic death on countless stages for well over a century. In spectacular fashion, her story is retold once again here in Melbourne in this Victorian Opera production, both personalising Violetta’s plight poignantly and monumentalising Verdi’s classic enduringly.

The talents of director, Henning Brockhaus, and visionary set designer, the late Josef Svoboda, manifest a collaborative harmony not often felt. First seen in 1992 in Macerata, Italy and presented in association with Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini, their glittering production is labelled, “Traviata of the Mirrors”.

Anticipatory silence precedes the raising of Her Majesty’s Theatre’s red velvet curtain as two lonely spotlights direct their shaft into a dark void. The first notes emanate from the pit and an immense mirror rises. Both theatrically and musically, there is an immediate sense of calculated precision. Then the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra, led out under Conductor Richard Mills' expert guidance, never let go.

As Verdi’s music pumps the first party at Violetta’s Paris salon in Act One, a kaleidoscopic world entertains. Imagine the visual splendour of the great 18th Century decorative painter, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (the NGV’s current winter exhibition, Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, will inform), and you realise one such masterpiece lies before you. With strikingly elegant costumes by Giancarlo Colis, the reflections, colour and foreshortening dazzle the entire proscenium as the mirror and stage action gradually become one. Even the limitations of left and right stage entry and exit paths on a singularly flat stage are camouflaged by the simplicity of such inspired artistry.

All this vibrancy on stage never impedes a clear rendering of the story, based on the play La dame aux Camélias (1852), adapted from a novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Clear enunciation of Francesco Maria Piave’s Italian libretto is assisted by three prominent screens, which provide the English translation. With the entire cast adding to a seamless performance, even the occasional speck of unsteady acting and overzealous fainting couldn’t tarnish the overall impact.

As Violetta, Jessica Pratt glided and fluttered with ease in a musical world of extraordinary heights and deep crevices, drawing us into Violetta’s world convincingly. On the back of her recent Teatro alla Scala success as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Pratt’s highlights are many, but her Act Two, Scene One encounter with Giorgo Germont is compelling. As she reluctantly sacrifices her attempt at a new, unsullied country existence (in severe matronly attire to prove it), Pratt superbly depicts Violetta’s unexpected fragility and her struggle to gain respect.

Tenor, Alessandro Scotto di Luzio is exemplary in his portrayal of Alfredo Germont, Violetta’s admirer and recipient of her love. Exhibiting a voice of striking dexterity and pathos, Scotto di Luzio’s fine performance even dances in his eyebrows. Together with Pratt, the duo impress with interlocking vocal subtleties and dynamic strength, intertwined subliminally in their final act “Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo”.

Completing the potent trio, Jose Carbo, as Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, displays every bit a fighter for respectability while subtly exposing the finest grain of hypocrisy. In a rich, broad baritone voice, Carbo lets loose exceptional legato and a pulsating resonance though occasionally exposing a rawness at the edge of his highest range.

Dimity Shepherd sparkles with a voice that comfortably matches her character, Flora, Violetta's accomplice in salacious entertainment. Nathan Lay as Barone Douphol and Jeremy Kleeman as Marchese d’Obigny also stand out amongst the strong, polished performances from the supporting soloists, while the Victorian Opera Chorus adds another triumph from their wardrobe of roles.

As Violetta approaches death in the final moments, we also feel both her despair in death and her joy in having felt love being returned. Then the massive mirror slowly rises to reflect the theatre's human warmth and I pondered, what is the significance of this final stunning effect? I decided that it demonstrates our collective force, visiting Violetta to offer our love to her in much the same way as Alfredo and Giorgio do in their final conciliatory visit. It also seems to bring us back to the present after an evening's journey into a realm of intensely hypnotic theatre.

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