The decadence and glamour of Paris at the turn of the 19th Century is depicted in Alessandro Talevi‘s spiced-up new production of Verdi’s classic tear jerker. I say “spiced-up” because the atmosphere of Violetta’s Act l party scene is more redolent of an orgy in a bordello than the usual deceptively elegant and mannered gathering I have encountered in some productions. Guests in various states of dis-arranged dress (the young men are bare chested apart from scant waistcoats) can be seen in different coital positions moving to the rhythm of the music during Violetta’s celebrated showpiece “Sempre libera”. The audience is left in little doubt by the end of the act as to the nature of Violetta’s calling as a courtesan  – or upmarket prostitute – call her what you will.

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Throughout the pensive Act l prelude we see Violetta standing motionless upstage gazing at a silvery moon. Above her, projected through a circular opening in the cyclorama are magnified images of  diseased lungs. In this age of graphic health warnings on tobacco products this is both a discomforting warning and a reminder of the tragic fate that awaits the consumptive heroine.

Talevi firmly underlines Violetta’s transmutation in Act II from hedonistic temptress to a virtual saint who selflessly sacrifices her last hope of happiness for the sake of family honour. A virtually empty stage, save for some elegant garden furniture and set against an azure blue cyclorama conveys a life style increasingly driven by a shortage of cash. We learn, of course that Violetta has been flogging off the contents of her country house and is now waiting expectantly to meet a potential purchaser for this desirable property.

The young Johannesburg-born director with his set and costume designer Madeleine Boyd demonstrate just how effectively economy of means can propel an idea; allowing the audience to savour the musicality of this wonderful scene and the interaction between the three protagonists without any distracting visual clutter. Matthew Haskins‘ soft lighting perfectly matches the mood  and the interplay between Hye-Youn Lee‘s Violetta and the imposing figure of Giorgio Germont projected by Roland Wood is subtly handled. After Germont’s initial contempt for Violetta, I soon detected mutual respect and understanding. Violetta even tenderly places a hand on the shoulder of this formidable figure. Germont’s relationship with his son Alfredo, sung by Ji-Min Park, is equally compelling, Wood is a polished singing actor whose every movement and facial expression is carefully nuanced. The young South Korean tenor is not perhaps quite as multi-dimensional but he still creates a charmer whose puppyish ardour is instantly appealing and who grows in stature as the denouement approaches.

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The simplicity of Madeleine Boyd’s Act II Scene l setting contrasts vividly with the opulence and finery of the ensuing festivities at Flora’s house in Paris. There is even a sprinkling of humour before Alfredo’s public humiliation of Violetta as, beneath a sparkling moonlit garden backdrop, the guests gather round Flora and Gaston as they perform a cabaret loosely based on the Death of Carmen. It’s rather like witnessing the Death of Thisbe as played hilariously by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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The Act III penury to which the terminally ill Violetta has descended is poignantly suggested by the dim lighting and poverty-stricken surroundings. Nothing new there perhaps, but the group of spectral white-faced figures in evening dress – past lovers of Violetta –  who appear above the deathbed during the carnival revelries going on outside, provided some delightfully grotesque imagery. The ex-lovers gloatingly slow-handclap after she has expired. I was slightly disappointed when, after gallantly staggering to her feet to deliver an ecstatic trance-like “Gran Dio! Morir si giovane”, Violetta collapsed and died on the floor at the far side of the bed rather than in front of it. Only an oblique side-faced view of Alfredo as he knelt over her could be seen by the audience (in the stalls) as the curtain slowly falls.

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It might be unfair to observe that Roland Wood’s Germont virtually sings everyone else off the stage but his performance is quite simply world class; much as I hesitate to use this weary cliche. Wood is a wonderful basso cantante who creates a Germont of gravitas and sensitivity. The voice and the physical presence are immense. His impeccably sung “Pura siccome un’angelo” and “Di Provenza, il mar” are probably as good as you’ll ever hear.

Hye-Youn Lee hardened above the stave as she tackled the top Cs, and her bravely attempted climactic E flat in “Sempre libera”. Violetta’s impassioned Act II outpouring “Amami, Alfredo” – always one of this opera’s emotional high water marks – was beautifully controlled. Lee’s “Addio del passato” introduced beforehand by a plangent solo violin as Violetta reads Germont’s concilliatory letter could have been even more heart rending if she had taken more time over her line “E tardi!” (it is too late). These fateful words are matched by an anguished chord for the full string section. Instead of encapsulating Violetta’s mood of despair the words were barely noticeable. Lee’s compatriot, Ji-Min Park, has a wonderfully fluid tenor with a bright upper register. “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” was elegantly phrased and bursting with youthful ardour. However, I should have liked just a smidgeon more power in Alfredo’s agonised outburst, heralded by the tension laden rustlings in the lower strings, as he reads out Violetta’s letter informing him that she has severed their relationship.

Amongst the host of attention-grabbing cameos, I would highlight

Peter Savidge as Baron Douphol, Daniel Norman as Gaston, Victoria Sharp as Flora, Nicholas Butterfield as Marquis d’Obigny, Dean Robinson as Dr Grenvil and Ross McInroy as Flora’s servant. The last two named are members of the Opera North Chorus; the 36 members of which sang with typical crispness and focus clearly relishing their roles as the boisterous guests at the louche parties hosted respectively by Violetta and Flora.

Italian conductor Gianluca Marciano produces a stylish account of this beautiful score. Marciano is sensitive to the dramatic pace and the flow of the musical line and achieves consummate balance between the orchestra and the singers on stage; I could hear every word. The chamber music-like quality of much of Verdi’s writing must take its share of credit for this but so should the Orchestra of Opera North and this conductor for the extraordinary dynamic range and the clarity of instrumental textures. Marciano’s setting of tempi tended to be “safe” but he allows individual solos to be exquisitely shaped and pointed. The string section of 32 players built on 3 double basses ranged from the most shimmering and delicate of double pianissimos to full bodied tonal richness in the emotionally climactic moments.

If last Saturday’s rapturous reception from the first night audience at Leeds Grand Theatre is a reliable indicator, Opera North’s stimulating new production of La Traviata is certain to be a great popular success. It continues in repertory at Leeds Grand until1st November and then tours to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Salford Lowry and Nottingham Theatre Royal.

4 stars

Geoffrey Mogridge

(Photos by Richard H Smith, from the Opera North website)

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