Opera Review: La Traviata/ Opera Australia

Natalie Aroyan as Annina, Emma Matthews as Violetta Valéry and Arnold Rutkowski as Alfredo Germont in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of La Traviata. Photo credit: Branco Gaica
Natalie Aroyan as Annina, Emma Matthews as Violetta Valéry and Arnold Rutkowski as Alfredo Germont in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of La Traviata.
Photo credit: Branco Gaica

La traviata, Opera Australia

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House,

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Written by Deen Hamaker

When Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata premiered at Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1853, theatre management insisted that the opera be set in the early 18th Century. Verdi had wanted his opera in portrayed in contemporary times. Based on Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias published 1848,  the story was very much of its time. Dumas’s novel was based in turn on the tragically short life of the real life courtesan Marie Duplessis who died age 23 in 1847. The theatre management was concerned that the audience did not want to see reflections of their own time on the stage. Despite failing at its premiere, La traviata is now the most popular opera in the world and continues to speak to us, our prejudices and our desires.

Violetta is the role that nearly every soprano wants to to sing. It provides a wonderful challenge for someone with real acting chops. This acknowledgement doesn’t even begin to describe the wide range of vocal challenges faced by sopranos who take on the role. It is often said that Verdi wrote the role of Violetta for at least 3 different voices throwing down the gauntlet to sopranos of every vocal colour and type. From the famous coloratura fireworks at the end of Act I to the dramatic duets of Act II and the lyrical  Addio del passato in Act III, there are areas for every soprano to shine regardless of her fach. But it is rare indeed  to find a soprano whose all encompassing skills connect all the facets of Violetta and give us a real three dimensional portrayal.

Sydney is lucky indeed to have Emma Matthews as Violetta in the latest revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s gorgeous production. Since she first took on the role in the inaugural season of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in 2012, her assumption of the role has grown and developed. This is an artist at the peak of her powers. From her first moments as the party girl, she is in command of the stage, fully inhabiting the role. Her interpretation reminds us that Violetta is at her most fundamental an actress. Underneath all the show and the glitter is a real woman, both fragile and determined, vulnerable yet strong. You can see the flashes of this woman beneath the courtesan’s facade. While many sopranos succeed in making Violetta vocally beautiful, Matthews goes further, using every nuance of the music together with her consummate acting skills to show us every contrast. We can see those moments when Violetta lets the mask fall to show us what is really going on beneath. Building in intensity throughout, particularly stunning in Violetta’s scena at the end of Act I, it was in Act II scene II that Matthews really came into her own. Utterly devastated, she lies exposed on the stage flinching at the money that has just been thrown at her by her jealous lover. Her pain at his betrayal and her humiliation is palpable. In the soft tragic moments of Act III’s Addio del passato  and her dramatic final struggle for life, her performance was poignant, beautiful and tragic. That Emma Matthews has won more Helpmann awards that any other artist will surprise no one who has seen her Violetta. Vocally stunning and heart wrenching, it was an outstanding bravura performance.

As Violetta’s jealous lover, Alfredo, young Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan sang beautifully. His tenor is richly coloured and bright, handling both the happy and dramatic moments with ease. His voice has a lovely easy top and he plays the young gallant lover with a jealous streak convincingly. He manages to portray the required naivete to stop coming across as a complete cad. As his father Giorgio Germont, Jose Carbo returned to the role for which he has become renowned. With his rich powerful baritone he soars through the arias and duets of Act II. Carbo deftly played the stentorian father with a hard heart who all too late realises the consequences of his prejudices. Particularly beautiful in his pleas with his son to return to him in the first scene of Act II, he brings so much more pathos to the role usually seen as a cold hearted villain.

The minor roles, Dominica Matthews as Flora, Gennadi Dubinsky as Doctor Grenvil, John Longmuir as Gastone and Leah Thomas as Annina, were superb. Dominica Matthews, who celebrated her 100th performance of Flora in this production the week of these performances was particularly fabulous. Portraying the party girl waiting in the wings to take Violetta’s place at the head of the demi-monde, she was bright and full of life, singing beautifully throughout.

Leading the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in an excellent performance was Anthony Legge, the company’s Associate Music Director. These performances mark his farewell with the company and it is a real shame that a musician of his quality has been lost at Opera Australia. The company will not be the same without the musical prowess and genuine passion for the artform he brought to the company. Anthony Legge will be missed indeed.

Elijah Moshinsky’s gorgeous production ably updates the action to the 1890’s and is beautifully detailed with its spectacular evocation of fin-de-siecle Paris. Simple touches amplify the tragedy of Violetta’s fall, the falling autumn leaves, the stripped apartment of Act III. The production does not show its age and continues to tell the story in a clear and beautiful way. With a cast as strong as this in such a gorgeous production, this is a real rare operatic treat for Sydney audiences.

Deen Hamaker for SoundsLikeSydney©

Deen Hamaker is a passionate opera aficionado and commentator. Introduced to theatre, opera and classical music at a very young age, he has acted in and directed several theatre productions, both in Australia and overseas. Deen lived in Japan for several years and studied the performing arts of Asia. Deen’s particular passion is opera, particularly the Russian, French and Modern repertoire. Deen was a contributing author for “Great, Grand and Famous Opera Houses”, 2012. Fluent in Japanese, Deen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from Griffith University and currently lives in Sydney.

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