Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
An elegantly dressed woman stands, facing upstage, her back to the audience. She is deep in reflection, studying a magnificent full moon. Her thoughts, it seems must be dark ones, because the moon transforms into the eyepiece of a microscope under which microbes swarm and multiply. Before long, this view is replaced by an endoscope, as the view travels, perhaps with the woman’s thoughts, down a windpipe, into some dark, foreboding place.
Verdi’s overture to what is apparently the world’s most performed opera, has all the beautiful melancholy necessary to match these opening images in Alessandro Talevi’s Opera North production of La Traviata (video design by Gemma Burditt). (Incidentally, it is such a pleasure to see Opera North productions making thoughtful, dramatic use of overtures). It is a powerful opening which foreshadows a very fine production.
Violetta, for it is she, turns from private meditation to immerse herself in a wild party, of which she is hostess. Victoria Newlyn’s movement direction helps create the sensual mix of glamour and sleaze, further aided by Madeleine Boyd’s set and costumes, and Matthew Haskins's excellent lighting. We meet, at first, a woman who, aware of her illness, intends to bow out disgracefully, partying all the way to the grave. This resolve is about to be broken by the arrival of a foolish, headstrong yet irresistible young suitor, Alfredo Germont.
Polish diva Anna Jeruc-Kopec takes over the role of Violetta from Hye-Youn Lee, and this strengthens the production in several ways. While Lee made a sweet, vulnerable heroine, she always seemed too young and fragile for opera’s prima demimondaine. Jeruc-Kopec owns and understands the role; we believe she is a woman who, about to pay a cruel price for having devoted her life to pleasure, allows her final steps to take another, more profound, more noble path. She sings the doomed woman’s arias with passion and awareness, and her curtain call is rightly greeted with a resounding ‘Brava!’ from many quarters of the auditorium.
Whether it is down to playing alongside a more assured Violetta, or simply a case of practice-makes-almost-perfect, Ji-Min Park has grown into the role of Alfredo since last winter. His gestures are more controlled, less forced and his singing is a joy to hear. Doomed they may be, but this Violetta and Alfredo are a match made in opera heaven.
In support, Louise Collett (Annina) and Stephen Gadd (Giorgio Germont) turn in adept and emotionally truthful performances. Conductor Oliver von Dohnanyi underpins the needs of the singers with restraint and sensitivity. The Opera North chorus are immaculate.
My only slight reservation is with the closing image—an audience of “gentlemen” in masquerade, watching through the moon-shaped window, who greet Violetta’s demise with wild applause (albeit mimed in slo-mo). Yes, it might serve as a mirror-image to contemporary society, still so inclined to mix voyeuristic and moralising attitudes towards those who live their lives on the margins of what is deemed appropriate.
However, it draws away our attention at the very moment when it should be entirely focused on the ill-starred lovers. But this is a momentary lack of clarity, which only stands out because so much else is clear and effective in this highly commendable production.
Alfredo and Violetta sing of love’s ‘torture and delight’. Tonight's audience revels in the triumph of delight. Brava and Bravo.
Reviewer: Martin Thomasson